With the first major round of test results from quarantined herds due in March, the next month is shaping as a critical period for the future direction of Queensland's Bovine Johne's Disease response program.
Only four cattle from the thousands tested for the disease across more than 100 trace properties so far have shown positive signs of BJD.
Industry and government are waiting for the first major round of definitive culture test results on trace herds in the coming month, and what they show could have a significant bearing on how Queensland decides to manage the disease in future.
If the results continue to show a low prevalence of the disease, the existing control and eradication policy designed to preserve Queensland’s “BJD Protected Zone” status, and currently favoured by the Queensland Government and AgForce, would likely remain in place.
However, were the results to reveal greater rates of infection, and of a scale high-enough to convince scientists that eradication would be unachievable and a management approach would be a more viable option, the minister and industry would also have to take that advice seriously.
One of the major reasons cited by AgForce and the Cattle Council of Australia for supporting a control and eradication policy in Queensland (the Queensland Government says its position is based on industry’s position) is market access.
Most of Australia’s live export markets, including its biggest customer Indonesia, will only accept cattle from herds that can be proven to have had no clinical symptoms of BJD for a minimum period, typically between one to five years depending on the market .
(If you’re wondering why countries where BJD is already endemic such as Indonesia can still block cattle from Australia based on BJD, Queensland Liberal Senator Ian MacDonald asked that very question during a recent senate estimate committee hearing in Canberra. In response Chief veterinary officer Dr Mark Schipp explained that under World Trade Organisation sanitary and phytosanitary agreements, it is permissible for countries which have BJD to impose protocols requiring that imports be free of BJD, provided the importing country has an official control program in place.)
Opponents of the eradication-based approach say the costs it imposes on quarantined producers are too great, and argue that the disease has been shown to cause minimal production losses, and should be managed by producers on-farm with the help of a vaccination (Pfizer is due to release its Silirum vaccine in coming weeks).
Queensland agriculture minister John McVeigh confirmed at a Rural Press Club of Queensland lunch in Brisbane last Friday that his department was also undertaking cost-benefit analyses of various control and management options to help guide its decision on the future of its BJD management program.
That decision will also take into account the results at the end of April of a review he has commissioned of the State’s BJD response to date, to be conducted over the next two months by grazier and immediate past president of AgForce Brent Finlay, and veterinary expert professor Jonathan Hill.
“Eradicating BJD from affected properties continues to be our course of action until the response program is reviewed next month, after test results and other data are consolidated,” Mr McVeigh said.
“We will be collectively reviewing the BJD response program and taking stock of how we are progressing and what we have achieved.
“Only then can we make an informed decision on the future direction.”
Those most-affected by the ongoing disease crisis are the owners of the 73 cattle properties which have now been subject to severe movement restrictions for three months and are bearing the direct impact of the industry’s decision to pursue a control and eradication policy.
How they will be compensated remains a key question.
The Queensland Government has already announced it will establish an ongoing biosecurity fund to assist producers affected by this outbreak and future disease issues going forward.
It has granted $2m to the fund and loaned it a further $3m to get it started. The $3m will be paid back by a levy on producers, the details of which are not yet finalised, but should be announced soon, the minister’s office has stated.
Western Australia, South Australia and Victoria each have their own state-based, producer-funded biosecurity levies, which range from levies on the transaction of each head of livestock to levies on each NLIS tag purchased.
One argument understood to have been put up against the use of an NLIS-tag based levy in Queensland is that it will unfairly burden cattle breeders who pay for the initial tag.
Queensland has a number of existing examples to draw upon in making its decison on how a biosecurity fund and compensaiton scheme should operate, including the South Australian sheep levy, which is a transaction levy of 35c per head of sheep sold, the South Australian cattle levy, which is levied at a rate of 60c per NLIS tag sold, and the WA cattle industry funding scheme which applies of transaction levy at a rate of 20c/head of cattle sold.
How WA has structured compensation for its BJD-affected producers
In Western Australian, the Department of Agriculture, Food and Water and the board which manages the state’s cattle biosecurity fund have already agreed to release $636,000 to assist six Kimberley producers currently in the process of finding and culling any of the surviving 495 bulls bought into WA from the Central Queensland stud where this BJD incursion was first officially detected.
A DAFWA spokesperson told Beef Central this week that the cost to the WA Industry Funding Scheme (Cattle) will depend on the number of surviving bulls, as many of the older bulls may have died or already been slaughtered.
Net compensation for the bulls is estimated at $280,000, the spokesperson said.
Compensation per animal is being calculated on “original market value, age and condition”.
The Committee has also approved payment for costs of an estimated $225,000 associated with trucking, sample collection and laboratory testing to resolve suspicion of BJD.
Additional funding of an estimated $130,000 has been made available to undertake herd testing on the properties.
Kimberley movement-restriction status update
DAFWA reports that 109 bulls traced from the BJD infected herd in Queensland have now been identified on four Kimberley properties, and that these bulls have been culled and samples taken to the department’s Animal Health Laboratories in South Perth for testing.
Herd testing is also underway on four Kimberley properties, with initial test results expected to take two to four weeks.
"To resolve suspicion on individual properties all tests conducted on that property must be completed, the department will make the collated results available as individual property statuses are determined (resolved)," a DAFWA statement explained.