Timely information important

The spread of the cattle disease Mycoplasma bovis is wider than expected and there are indications the number of infected farms will continue to grow.

This is proving one of the most difficult periods for dairy farmers, faced with uncertainty about the future of their herds.

New information suggests the disease was in New Zealand up to three years before the official announcement it had been found in South Canterbury.

All sorts of excuses are being made. The facts are someone is responsible for this disease. No-one knows who yet, and it has become a problem for those left wondering.

About 11,000 cows of a possible 22,000 have been slaughtered to stop the spread through the national herd, the animals destroyed along with the income of the owners of those cows. Farmers are not immune to the pain of seeing productive animals slaughtered because of a disease which will continue spreading, in all likelihood.

Talk has switched from eradication to containment. It seems that is the best that can be offered.

Biosecurity Minister Damien O'Connor blames the previous government for not being vigilant enough in the way the national animal tracing system (Nait) was enforced.

The previous National-led government's inaction, lack of enforcement and promotion of Nait has created major issues for hunting down Mycoplasma bovis. Mr O'Connor is promising changes.

Some serious facts are emerging. Farmers may have been selling infected calves to others in the dairy industry, not alerting authorities to the sale and thereby creating an underground path of infection.

Some of those calves are now 3-year-old cows, in a herd somewhere and likely to be infecting others. Biosecurity officials say efforts to eradicate the disease have been hampered by a minority of farmers selling cattle on the black market.

Blaming the previous government is not the only area where fault should be apportioned.

Members of the public still have not heard enough from the Ministry of Primary Industries. If it was not for the persistence of local media, the story may have not come out until much later.

Here is what is known. The disease was first discovered on a large dairy operation, and further pockets were found in farms associated with the ``farm zero''. Now, it emerges the disease was traced back years earlier.

At the end of Wednesday last week, 38 farms were active infected places and another 40 were under restricted place notice - or likely to become infected. Yesterday, the disease was confirmed in the Waikato.

Nearly 1700 properties are of interest because of risk events such as animal movements, the supply of milk for animal feed or because they are next to infected properties.

Stress and uncertainty is causing angst in rural communities. Neighbours are said to be turning on neighbours. Farmers are reported to have become angry on learning their neighbour was having cattle tested for the illness without having themselves been informed. Federated Farmers says people under pressure do not react well in these sorts of circumstances. Having to watch your herd of cows being destroyed, or not knowing if it will be destroyed, is gut-wrenching.

Farmers are being encouraged to be open about the disease because, after all, it will have arrived by accident for most. There is no shame. Probably, there will be frustration and a level of anger which needs to be controlled.

Mr O'Connor is calling it an unfortunate and difficult situation, expressing his sympathy for every farmer involved.

Recriminations will continue, but those involved need to take a wider view. Improved record-keeping in the future will help. For now, the blame game is best left behind as farmers and officials deal with this terrible disease.


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