Collective responsibility tough

The Government and farming leaders have made one of the hardest decisions imaginable in deciding to attempt the eradication of cattle disease Mycoplasma bovis from New Zealand.

The decision has been made to protect the national herd and the long-term productivity of the farming sector.

Farming leaders have thrown their support behind the eradication attempt, but it is the actual farmers with the infected herds who will now be facing the reality of losing cows they may have bred into milk-producing animals.

All the support in the world will not alleviate the pain those farmers will suffer as the trucks arrive to carry away their animals for slaughter.

Farming representatives have promised to work with the Government to ensure a robust support system is in place for those affected with M. bovis, at the same time calling for transparency around decision-making.

The Ministry for Primary Industries has been under scrutiny for its actions, or lack of them, since the disease was first discovered last year.

Before the official announcement, rumours circulated on who might be responsible. Even now, there is no idea how it arrived. MPI is following several leads, including imported live cattle, frozen semen, embryos, veterinary medicines, feed and used farm equipment.

MPI is stretched and further resources - money and staff alike - may be needed to push forward quickly with eradication now the decision has been made.

There is a limited window to attempt the eradication and, even then, it may not be successful. The Government is allowing one to two years but acknowledges how difficult M. bovis is to diagnose and to control. For this reason, it is possible that at some stage the fight to eradicate may end and farmers will have to learn to manage the disease.

Spring testing this year will provide the opportunity to reassess the feasibility of eradication when the results come in February. M. bovis is at its most detectable after calving.

The decision yesterday comes at a crucial time for the dairy industry. The official dairy season ends this week and farmers, particularly sharemilkers, move their herds to different properties. Whether those movements will still take place is unknown, despite some cows already having been shifted to different farms.

Beef farmers are calling for representation now to ensure their interests are taken into account. The widespread nature of the disease is starting to be felt.

Eradication is a tough call. The Government acknowledges no-one ever wants to see mass culls. But the alternative is to risk the spread of the disease across the national herd. There is a chance eradication will protect more than 20,000 dairy and beef farms, but only if action is taken now.

There will be some farmers who would prefer to be left to manage this disease rather than having their animals culled. Industry and the Government must have a high degree of confidence from international scientists eradication is both feasible and practical.

It is also pleasing to see the Government has responded to pressure to speed up the compensation process and will now make interim payments within two weeks of stock being culled.

Banks will need to be supportive of farmers whose cash flows have been affected by the disease.

Undoubtedly, rifts will appear in the farming community as blame gets laid. This, unfortunately, is the side of a disaster - which it may become - which sees human nature at its worst.

Reprisals will be fruitless. Farmers, and the wider community, need to see this as a chance to unite to fight this disease rather than apportion blame. A full inquiry will take place, giving the proper authorities the chance to determine the cause.

In the meantime, collective responsibility will give farmers the chance to save a significant portion of the national dairy herd.


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