Industry debates best path for BJD in Qld

James Nason, 25/06/2013

Queensland appears on track to adopt a voluntary transaction levy set at 50c/head to support a new biosecurity fund, a Bovine Johne’s Disease (BJD) industry forum was told in Brisbane yesterday.

The forum was the third in six months convened by agriculture minister John McVeigh to update Queensland’s cattle industry on the progress of the state’s BJD testing and control response, and to gauge industry’s views on how the disease should be managed in future.

Updates provided at yesterday’s forum included:

• Submissions to a consultation process are showing that support exists at producer level for a voluntary transaction levy, set at a level of 50c/head;

• Testing to date of trace-forward properties from the Rockley herd near Rockhampton has identified four properties with confirmed BJD positives, and a further 17 that have tested positive to initial tests and are undergoing further tests for confirmation; 

• Biosecurity Queensland says the additional 17 properties that may be BJD positive will not have significant trace-forward implications if they are confirmed as positive;

• Four applications have so far been received for assistance under the Queensland Government’s financial assistance package;

• The number of properties still in quarantine has remained at 53 since March due to discrepancies in PCR test results produced at NSW laboratory. The number of quarantined properties is expected to reduce again in coming weeks when PCR testing is formally introduced at Biosecurity Queensland’s Coopers Plains laboratory. 

• Livestock agent Chris Todd has been appointed by AgForce as an independent livestock consultant to assist properties affected by the BJD quarantine response to find pathways to agistment, feedlots and/or markets for affected animals;

• The cost of the existing incursion has been estimated at $6-$7m (See separate story)

• A laboratory in Victoria has formally confirmed that the BJD strain found in Queensland is a bison strain (more on the implications of that finding below)

Protected Zone versus Producer Management

The forum underlined the differences that continue to exist at industry level over how BJD should be managed in Queensland in future.

Industry views are broadly divided into two distinct positions. On one side is the AgForce/Cattle Council view, currently supported by the Queensland Government, which holds that Queensland should persevere with testing, control and eradication to maintain the State’s Protected Zone status. On the other side are those including the Australian Registered Cattle Breeders’ Association, the Australian Brahman Breeders’ Association and the Santa Gertrudis Breeders’ Association which believe the disease should be managed at producer level, supported by vaccinations and Market Assurance Programs if required.

While the Queensland Government is currently overseeing the management of the Protected Zone in Queensland, agriculture minister John McVeigh maintains that decisions regarding future management of the disease continue to rest squarely on industry’s shoulders, and the state’s position could change if a clear mandate to do so was expressed by industry.

AgForce representatives said the group’s members support the maintenance of a Protected Zone in the state.

Cattle Council vice-president and Cloncurry cattleman Peter Hall said that with only four properties currently confirmed to have BJD as a result of the current outbreak, it did not make sense to put the remaining 19,173 beef properties in the state at risk under a producer managed system. 

He said that producers would face additional costs and impacts if a producer managed system was introduced, and the risk of the disease spreading would also increase through a lack of producer participation.

“I believe the best thing we can do is to keep maintaining the course we are pursuing, the Protected Zone status, and work out how we get more compensation, but the only way we’re going to get on top of this is with something that is backed by Government regulation,” Mr Hall said.

“If we walk down the path of a producer managed system, we stand a very real chance of losing the support of the government in this.”

He said a producer managed system would not control the spread of BJD.

ARCBA executive director Alex McDonald challenged the view that Queensland had to maintain its Protected Zone status to maintain access to export markets.

He said exporters in southern states had shipped hundreds of thousands of dairy heifers to China from an industry where BJD was endemic, as well as shipments of tens of thousands of Angus and Hereford heifers to Russia, Angus and Wagyu cross heifers to Japan and bulls to Indonesia.

“I don’t think there are any markets that Queensland has access to now (because of its Protected Zone status) that all the southern states don’t also have access too, and some of those are managed zones,” Mr McDonald said.

He said resistance to a producer managed approached appeared to be based on fear that Queensland would lose access to live export markets, would face significant costs in moving to a Market Assurance Program, and would be flooded with cattle from infected herds in the south.

“For AgForce particularly I think they really need to think very clearly about whether these issues are as real as they think they are, because I don’t think any one of those three are anywhere near true.”

National Johne’s Disease program technical advisor Evan Sergeant told the forum he was aware of one property that had lost access to a multi-million dollar annual export trade because its herd tested positive to BJD in pre-export quarantine.

The meeting herd several examples of how producers caught up in the existing quarantine response have been severely affected, financially and mentally, as a result of the lockdown. “It is not the disease that causes the problems, it is the quarantine,” Central Queensland stud cattle breeder Darren Kent said.

More assistance vital

There was agreement from both sides on one factor in particular – that those bearing the burden of the current policy response should be adequately compensated.

How that should be achieved remains a key sticking point.

The Queensland Government has provided $2m in cash to kick-startthe state's biosecurity fund, which will be increased as funds from the voluntary levy begin to flow.

Under current arrangements decided by Minister McVeigh following consultation with an industry advisory committee, affected properties may be eligible for up to $50,000 in the first year, and $200,000 in total.

Mr McVeigh said the industry committee asked to cap payments at $50,000 to ensure existing funds could be spread out to as many affected producers as possible.

Mr McVeigh pointed out that the package was never intended to be a full compensation package but a financial assistance program. “I recognise very clearly that the package won’t provide full compensation for all of the costs that are being incurred by (affected properties), however it provides a source of financial assistance, not compensation, and I encourage everyone to have a look at it.”

At 50c per head, a voluntary levy will generate about $2m in funding per year.

Central Queensland cattleman Wallace Gunthorpe said he believed the Government should invest about $10m to adequately compensate affected producers.

AgForce cattle board chairman Howard Smith asked the Queensland Government to consider putting forward another $3m to assist affected producers now, in the knowledge those funds could be recouped when the voluntary levy is up and running.

Implications of Bison Strain

Confirmation that the Queensland BJD strain is a bison strain has added weight to the theory that the disease was introduced to Queensland in bulls imported from the United States in the early 1980s.

If true, that would confirm that the disease has been present in Queensland for much longer than previously thought, which also means it may be far more prevalent and more difficult to eradicate than previously thought.

However Biosecurity Queensland says suggestions the disease has been in Queensland for 30 years are still the subject of speculation.

Queensland chief veterinary officer Dr Rick Symons told the forum that same bison strain exists in Uganda, India and US.

Central Queensland cattleman Wallace Gunthorpe said no bulls had been imported from Uganda and India, and common sense suggested the disease had to have come from one or more of the hundreds of bulls imported from the US.

Dr Symons said confirmation of the bison strain did not influence the current process to maintain Queensland’s Protected Zone status.

“We don’t know how long the strain has been here, so it is just speculation whether it has been here for 20 years or 30 years, we’re looking into that but we don’t know,” he said.

He said that speculation the disease could have infected hundreds of properties in Queensland was not supported by years of passive monitoring of herds by veterinarians throughout the state.

“We’re a Protected Zone, which means there is a possibility of a low level of prevalence in Queensland, we acknowledge that and our trading partners acknowledge that, but there is no indication at all that it is rife.

“So figures about hundreds of properties being infected, it doesn’t actually match what we’re seeing out there.”

Eradication doesn’t mean eradication

Mr McVeigh said it was important to note that while the state supported a control and eradication policy under the national BJD control program, it was not based on an expectation that the disease could be totally eradicated from Queensland.

“The concept of this eradication to use terminology out of the national protocol as part of the maintenance of a protected status – eradication as you all know does not mean in this context eradicating BJD such that we will never see BJD in the state of Queensland again.

“It doesn’t mean that, it is a matter of under that national protocol eradicating outbreaks as they occur if we are to continue with the Protected Zone status for Queensland.”


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