Giving eradication our best shot means supporting farmers all the way

Mycoplasma bovis (M. bovis) is spreading fast in New Zealand and causing devastating effects for farmers. The Government this week announced an ambitious attempt to stamp out the disease, through mass culling and strict restrictions on farmers. M. bovis causes a wide range of problems in cattle, ranging from pneumonia to arthritis. The government says they have a good shot at eradication… if they act now. 

The most critical part of the M. bovis puzzle is ensuring farmers are 100% on board with the government’s plan of action. Going for eradication means giving farmers all the support they need, and not just because this will be a financially and emotionally distressing time for farmers, but because doing so will give New Zealand’s agriculture industry the best shot at getting rid of M. bovis.

It’s dollars and sense

Eradicating M. bovis won’t be cheap, with an estimated bill of $886m. If you’re not a farmer you might be wondering why our taxes should foot the bill for a problem affecting one or two industries. Last week we published our Quarterly Economic Monitor reports and an overarching theme we noticed was that it wasn’t urban centres driving strong economic growth, but our more rural areas. This growth doesn’t just mean more money has been ending up in farmers pockets, it has also shown up in strong overall spending and employment opportunities in these areas.

Experience tells us that once the rural economy powers up, it isn’t long before we start to see more activity happening in the urban centres.  In short, a strong agriculture sector means more money for all of us. On the other hand, a weak agriculture sector is also going to be a problem we’ll all share.

A plan and a response

One person’s action often affects another person’s decisions. In this case, the government’s plans for eradicating M. bovis are going to determine how farmers react to the prevention and discovery of infections on their farms. This reaction will in turn affect how far the disease spreads.

The government’s steps to eradicating M. bovis involve:

1.     Telling farmers to notify MPI if their cattle are showing symptoms of M. bovis.

2.     Testing for M. bovis in at-risk areas.

3.     Issuing Restricted Place Notices to properties which are believed to have M. bovis and Notices of Direction (that restrict stock movements).

4.     If the tests are positive:

a.     All stock on the property is culled

b.     Areas where infected stock was kept is left fallow for 60 days

c.     Farmers’ claims for compensation are processed within 2-3 weeks

All these steps mean that farmers play a crucial role in eradicating M. bovis.

Why eradicate?

The maths stacks up. Culling stock on 190-300 farms to save 20,000 farms from the disease makes sense numerically.  But maths is personal.  That’s still up to 300 farms losing 100% of their stock.  No easy feat to go through with, and no easy feat to replace.

So far, farmers have been on board with the eradication programme. We’ve seen many farmers already put their hands up when it looks like M. bovis has come on to their property – at great personal and financial cost. 

But we need farmers to keep putting up their hands.  How do we do that? We take away as much of the costs to farmers as possible. 

Reducing costs to farmers helps limit the spread

Reducing costs means reimbursing farmers for the full replacement value of their stock.  With 126,000 cattle expected to be culled – mostly within the next two years – the price of replacement stock is going to push up.  If farmers are reimbursed for less than the replacement price of their stock, there is still a financial incentive for farmers to hold on to potentially diseased stock, to delay notifying MPI, and to delay culling as much as possible. Any of these delays increase the risk that the disease spreads further.

Minimizing the eradication costs also means taking away the incentives for farmers to move stock.  Gypsy Day – a time of year when farmers typically move stock to winter pastures – is coming up on Friday.  M. bovis can live outside of animals meaning that both property and transport vehicles can carry the bacteria.  As a result, any stock movements open up risks to cross contamination. We should do be doing everything we can to stop or limit the potential impacts Gypsy Day.

The government could ban stock movements outright, but there are costs involved in keeping cattle going in over-grazed fields. Even farms that have been issued a Restricted Place Notice or a Notice of Direction (restricting movement of cattle on and off farms) are struggling with the additional feed costs involved in keeping their cattle in one place. With this eradication process expected to last over than two years, more farms will be facing these increased feed costs – along with the threat of having to cull their stock.  Reimbursing affected farmers for their additional feed costs will help reduce the incentives for farmers to move stock, and in turn reduces the risk of spreading the disease.

More than just a money problem

We also need to talk about enhancing community support systems for farmers in the face of the M. bovis outbreak and eradication process. We’re looking at a future where hundreds of farms will lose entire herds. Farmers spend years getting their herds just right and although financial support is one thing, the emotional support from the wider community is key.

Farmers need to be encouraged to put up their hands if they think they might have M. bovis. They also need to be supported through the process of losing, as well as rebuilding, their farms if they have M. bovis on their property. With farming already struggling with higher rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide, we need to shore up farmers’ resilience to the added stress they will face when dealing with M. bovis infections. Choosing eradication means going all in; supporting farmers through the entire process so that we have the best chance of getting rid of M. bovis in New Zealand.

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