A new report ranking Australia’s highest impact cattle diseases has raised further questions about the justication of policies which aim to eradicate Bovine Johne’s Disease.
The report ranks Johne’s Disease as the least costly to production of 17 endemic cattle diseases that were reviewed.
It estimated the annual costs of Johne’s to Australia’s cattle industry at around $2.8 million annually – or $2.5m a year in the south, where the largest impact is to the dairy sector, and $300,000 in northern Australia.
That compares to costs of more than $25 million generated in Queensland under a policy aimed at controlling and eradicating the disease following two detections in Central Queensland in 2012 and 2013, according to a Queensland Government report issued early last year.
Those costs were borne by the Queensland Government and dozens of individual cattle producers who had properties quarantined and cattle culled, largely at their own cost, under the eradication focused program.
As many as 20 Queensland properties are still under movement restrictions.
The heavy impact of the regulatory control efforts in Queensland has caused severe angst among affected producers and resulted in a review of national Johne’s Disease management policy being brought forward to this year.
The MLA-funded endemic disease report raises several questions about whether eradication is an achievable goal for Johne’s Disease. For example:
- The report says existing diagnostic tests for Johne’s are inadequate, which makes testing and culling programs aimed at eradicating the disease ineffective.
- The lack of confidence in test results also means it is a risk for herd owners to introduce test-negative animals into their herds.
- The persistence of the bacteria that cause Johne’s Disease in the environment, and especially in water, raises questions about the value of trying to control animal movement.
- A vaccine is available and can assist control efforts, but provides ‘incomplete protection’ and can not eradicate the disease from most affected herds. The vaccine also cross-reacts with tuberculosis tests.
- The report states that “currently it is not possible to eradicate Johne’s disease”, and says the direct economic impact of clinical BJD in beef cattle herds “is small”.
- Eradication by destocking was not justifiable until the annual clinical incidence exceeded 5pc – a level above which very few herds in Australia are infected.
The report notes that the main concern with Johne’s Disease surrounds the potential loss of trade due to regulatory restrictions.
These restrictions can limit the ability of beef cattle studs to sell bulls, while cattle can also be excluded from live export markets due to the presence of disease.
A key point of contention here is that trade protocols prevent the export of animals with “clinical BJD”, which are exhibiting signs of shedding and waste.
However, while only three herds involved in the Queensland BJD quarantine program have tested positive to clinical BJD, dozens of trace-forward herds which never exhibited clinical signs of the disease were still prevented from selling cattle for live export.
Further inconsistencies in Johne’s policy were highlighted last year when the Queensland Government chose not to activate a similar trace-forward quarantine program when it was confirmed that a southern stud which had sold many cattle into Queensland had tested positive to the sheep strain of Johne’s.
Both the cattle and the sheep strain of Johne’s appear to behave the same way in affected cattle. So if one strain of essentially the same disease is deemed not-of-concern, why were dozens of other producers forced to endure severe impacts for another strain of the same disease? And why are as many as 20 still being forced to endure those impacts?
The MLA report mirrors the results of an economic analysis by QDAFF economist Fred Chudleigh in early 2013 which estimated that if 5pc of all Queensland cattle herds became infected with BJD by 2043, the annual cost to industry would be just $258,000 per year – similar to the $300,000 annual cost estimate identified in the MLA report.
Cattle Council: Review will hopefully bring better outcomes
In response to the report Justin Toohey, advisor to Cattle Council of Australia, told Beef Central that it was clear existing national BJD program had been damaging for some producers, and the national review currently underway would hopefully result in changes to the system to deal with that.
However he also warned against generalisations being made about Johne’s Disease based on a report that averages the cost of the disease across Australia.
Within Australia there were some regions which were quite intensely affected, Mr Toohey said, but the impact of local effects was masked when the costs were averaged across the entire country.
“The point of the (MLA report) was to create a model which can then be applied at a regional level, which hasn’t been done yet,” Mr Toohey said.
“So it is a very broad sweep initially of what it has cost the nation, it is not regionally focused, and it can hide spikes.”
He said that there was a recognition within the cattle industry, including Cattle Council of Australia, that the heavy emphasis in Johne’s policy to date on trade issues and quarantine programs had not necessarily served the industry’s purpose in the long run.
“So we are reviewing it at the moment,” Mr Toohey said.
“Having said that, JD does have quite a high impact in some regions, in relation to trade as well.
“So we are attempting to straddle those two priorities.”
He said there was a huge variety in the impact JD caused in infected herds.
He said he could point to examples where Johne’s Disease had caused losses of 20pc in some cattle herds, while there were also many examples of absolutely no evidence of JD showing up in herds that were known to have the disease.
Trade impacts were also a genuine issue. He described another example where one particular exporter of live cattle to Japan had endured costs of well over one million dollars because the Japanese found evidence of JD in the exporter’s cattle.
“I think there is a real danger in generalising from this average report,” he said.
“Does it justify what we have been doing? Probably not given the recent history through the 2012-2013 experiences in Queensland.
“Would we do it again the same way if we had the chance? I can’t answer that. “But I do know that it has been pretty seriously damaging for some producers in those areas and we’re trying to deal with this. Hopefully the new system will do that.”