Kay’s Cuts: The dark cloud of animal disease

Steve Kay, US Cattle Buyers Weekly, 04/06/2018

A monthly column written exclusively for Beef Central by Steve Kay, publisher of US Cattle Buyers Weekly




AUSTRALIAN cattle producers, like their counterparts all over the world, know how a disease outbreak in their herds can lead to heartbreak and financial loss they might not recover from.

Australia is fortunate to have until now avoided an outbreak of foot and mouth disease (FMD) or had a single case of BSE – diseases that have wreaked havoc in other countries.

For example, a 2001 FMD outbreak in the United Kingdom caused losses of more than 8 billion pounds (about A$19 billion). Australian producers, though, have suffered financial losses at times, when diseases such bovine johne’s disease (BJD) and Theileria have been discovered in herds. The threat of disease is an ever-present dark cloud hanging over all producers.

I have observed the global livestock industry close up for many years and have seen how FMD and then BSE severely impacted the livestock sectors in the UK, in Europe and then in Canada and the US. Incidentally, is it just a coincidence that these two diseases, plus BJD, are commonly known by three-letter acronyms?

While working for Farmers Weekly magazine in London, I witnessed FMD’s march through the UK’s cattle, sheep and hog population in 1981. I don’t remember how many animals had to be slaughtered to halt the disease’s spread. But I will never forget the sight of huge pyres of dead cattle being incinerated for disposal on the Isle of Wight off the south coast of England.

I also had the dubious privilege of reporting on the UK’s first BSE case just before I left to go to the US. BSE then spread to most countries in Europe and the devastating impact on livestock farming and all of agriculture was immense. Little did I know that in May 2003, I would be reporting on another BSE case, this one in Canada. Or that in December that year, I would be writing about the first case in the US.

This case was one of the most traumatic events in the history of the US beef industry and cost the industry more than US$16 billion, mostly in lost exports. It took years for the US to persuade key markets like Japan and South Korea to reopen their markets to US beef. Today’s booming beef exports reveal just how crucial it is that the US industry does not have another trade-threatening disease outbreak.

New Zealand cattle industry tackles mycoplasma

I grew up on a dairy and beef farm in New Zealand, and watched my Dad over many years improve his herd through genetic selection and other means. He didn’t just take pride in his cows, he loved them almost as much as us kids. So it was with a heavy heart that I learned a week or so ago that New Zealand plans to cull as many as 150,000 dairy and beef cows in the first attempt by any country to try and eradicate the cow disease, Mycoplasma bovis.

The cull will be the largest mass animal slaughter in the country’s history and will cost an estimated NZ$886 million over ten years. The move is an attempt to save the national dairy herd and protect the long-term productivity of the farming sector, which is New Zealand’s second biggest export earner. New Zealand is the world’s largest exporter of dairy products, producing 3pc of the world’s milk. It has 6.6 million dairy cows and 3.4 million beef cows.

This is a tough call as no one ever wants to see mass culls, says Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. But the alternative is to risk the spread of the disease across New Zealand’s national herd. The country has a real chance of eradication to protect its more than 20,000 dairy and beef farms but only if it acts now. Total eradication of the disease was possible as it was not yet widespread and had presented in only one strain, says Ms Ardern.

Officials say they plan to kill all cows on any farms where the disease is found. Many of the cows will be slaughtered at processing plants and used for beef but some cows will have to be killed and buried on the farms or dumped in approved landfills, say officials. The disease is classified as “active” on 37 farms and computer modeling suggests this number will increase to at least 142 farms.

M. bovis, a bacteria, was first detected in New Zealand in July last year and manifests in mastitis in cows, severe pneumonia, ear infections and other symptoms. Despite initially being contained to farms in the South Island, the disease continued to spread and reached the North Island earlier this year.

Since it was first discovered, 26,000 cows have been culled. Of the total cost, NZ$16 million is loss of production and is borne by farmers and NZ$870 million is the cost of the response (including compensation to farmers).

The government expects to do most of the eradication work in one to two years. Government will meet 68pc of this cost and producer groups DairyNZ and Beef+Lamb New Zealand will meet the other 32pc. Government forecasts estimate if the disease was allowed to spread unchecked, it would cost the industry NZ$1.3 billion in lost production in ten years.

Stories have already emerged of dairy farmers having to cull 1000-cow herds because just one cow tested positive for the bacteria. That’s about as heartbreaking as it gets.



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  1. Ben Emms, 11/06/2018

    Reminds me greatly of the OJD fiasco the sheep industry had thrust upon it back in the 90’s. Producers destroyed for zero reason on the whim of some faceless public official only for the industry to turn around years later and say “well that was a bad idea” vaccinate and move on!

  2. John Gunthorpe, 07/06/2018

    Thanks Joe and Frank. Are you saying that NZ are destroying these animals in an attempt to eradicate a disease that exists in most dairy herds? How costly is the disease here? What level of losses do we face each year? You know this sounds awfully like the troubles we had with BJD in Queensland.
    On another matter, Steve, could you comment on the current state of the US domestic beef market. I read on The Cattle Range Weekly Market Summary that “demand for beef devoured the largest beef production in 10 years and that USDA reported the largest weekly beef export sales of the year occurred in the week ending May 24.” Cattle prices in the same week were up 4% over 60 days ago. To what extent do you see the cattle and US domestic beef prices being impacted by the record supply of cattle on feed for slaughter in the coming months?

  3. Joe McGrath, 05/06/2018

    Dear Gunthorpes
    M. Bovis has been in Australia for decades. The disease is not nice, but far from the debilitating diseases portrayed by the NZ MPI. In fact every dairy country in the world has it. NLIS/NAIT do little control the spread of animals that are carriers, regardless of the disease.

  4. Paul Franks, 05/06/2018

    As an aside I will add that the NLIS system is due for a thorough inquiry as to it’s value and whether something cheaper would accomplish the same thing. For example the electronic reporting of cattle movements as mobs from PIC to PIC rather then individual animal movements.

    Reason I say this is the tags fall out and the orange tags exist which means the beast is not lifetime traceable anyway. There is also the issue of cattle moving direct from property of birth to abattoir under the current system being forced to be tagged for no reason as they are fully lifetime traceable anyway. On top of that we would have no idea of how much fraud currently happens in the NLIS system.

    If a property does get a disease outbreak as we saw with BJD, the government will be going after every beast on the property regardless, not just a select few.

  5. Paul Franks, 05/06/2018

    John the NLIS system does not track cattle, it tracks tags (or bolus’s) and where that tag has been or currently is.

    As such if you buy 1000 tags, those numbers will be put on your PIC irrespective of whether they are in a beasts ear, sitting in a cupboard or lying on the ground if they fell out or the beast died.

  6. Jo Goodwin, 05/06/2018

    Absolutely gutted, after reading the article, and thinking of what the poor producers/families, are going through, with the loss of their livelihood, and years of hard work, and battling nature. Also after years/generations, of breeding up their herds. And yes, some often become ‘family’.
    Also, unbelievable, that there is so many diseases around, in many countries, with some cattle, being carriers.
    It’s a big concern, for Australian breeders, especially with NZ, just across the sea.
    Hoping that the spread of the diseases, can be halted in its tracks, without too drastic measures.
    In my thoughts, all those who are directly affected.

  7. John Gunthorpe, 04/06/2018

    This is difficult time for the New Zealand economy and their Prime Minister. Lets hope they can eradicate this bacterial disease from their herds. No doubt we will assist them in whatever way we can but we must take great care to ensure the disease is not carried into our country. If it migrated from the South Island to the North Island then it can also migrate to the big island. Protocols need to be established to ensure this does not happen. Farm visitors to NZ need to be sure they do not bring the bacteria back with them on boots or clothing.
    In all of these issues trace back to farm of origin is critical. When facing the minimum residue levels in bovine kidney fat for organochlorines imposed by the USA in the late 1980s, Australia was fortunate to have the tail tag system to trace cattle to the property of origin. Similarly, but with great personal catastrophe to those quarantined, the Queensland Chief Veterinary Officer (CVO) identified properties to which “suspect” bulls were delivered before 2012 when the BJD case was found on a property in North Queensland. From the NLIS records, the CVO was able to trace back to PICs that received bulls from 2005. This was as far back as the NLIS records went.
    NZ no doubt employed similar techniques to identify the possible 142 farms potentially infected. Our concern is that the USA still do not have a similar capability. It was reported the number of electronic tags collected in USA slaughter houses is down to 15% and falling. Certainly Australia’s NLIS records are doubtful. Producers checking their cattle numbers report they always have more on the NLIS system than on ground. It is possible for them to be corrected but it has not happened in all herds.
    When processing cattle in the USA, AMH in its early days purchased dairy bull calves from the hills behind LA, transferred them to rearing facilities in New Mexico, then on to feedlots in Kansas before slaughtering them in Iowa. Stock movements are not recorded nationally and it would be difficult to identify property of origin if an infected animal was found on a slaughter floor. While the US pushed Australia to improve its tracing of stock movements, the US have slipped behind in this work.

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