Production

Rockley Stud takes stand against BJD testing

James Nason, 08/01/2013

Ashley Kirk, Rockley Red Brahman Stud, Bahool. Picture: Kent WardThe stud at the centre of a Bovine Johne’s Disease outbreak in Queensland says it will not participate in further testing until it can be given greater assurances that industry and government-imposed eradication programs will work.

The Kirk family’s 58-year-old Rockley Red Brahman Stud at Bajool near Rockhampton has been devastated by the detection of BJD in three animals in November last year.

Due to its long incubation period the Kirks have no knowledge of how or when the cattle wasting disease arrived on Rockley, only that it is likely to have existed in their herd for several years.

In response to the detection Queensland cattle industry leaders and the Queensland Government have opted for an eradication-focused approach in order to maintain the state’s “Protected Zone” status under the national BJD program.

That policy has resulted in Rockley and more than 130 client properties, which have received Rockley animals in the past seven years, being placed under quarantine.

Affected producers cannot move cattle to non-quarantined properties and will remain under movement restrictions until culture test results are returned, expected to be by March at the earliest.

Associated animal welfare issues are also reported to be emerging as affected property owners muster cows and calves in searing summer heat to comply with testing protocols, and face the increasing dilemma of how to feed thousands of cattle locked up in drying paddocks.

At present no arrangements for compensation exist, apart from a maximum $11,000 payment available to help people involved in eradication programs cover testing costs.

The Queensland Government is currently looking at potential compensation measures, primarily the introduction of a voluntary “opt-out” levy on livestock producers to fund an emergency compensation scheme, similar to that in place in Victoria and WA.

'Eradication pain for questionable gain'

Rockley has been a leading name in the Red Brahman industry for three generations. Now, thanks to a disease the Kirks knew little about three months ago, the stud now faces a slow and painstaking process to rebuild.

The family will focus on breeding commercial cattle while they use two certified-clean paddocks to rebuild a stud herd with their existing genetics using embryo transfer and IVF programs.

The Kirks are yet to calculate the full cost of BJD to their business so far, but say that losses from their cancelled annual bull sale alone will amount to $400,000 this Rockley year.

One month after its BJD detection was publicly revealed, the family says it has now lost faith with the joint industry and government eradication approach, believing it causes far more pain for affected producers than the disease itself for questionable gain.

The Kirks issued a statement to media yesterday announcing their decision not to participate in further testing on Rockley until “further clarity and direction of the future eradication program is outlined”.

Ashley Kirk said there was little evidence that eradication programs had worked in southern states, despite forcing the destruction of millions of dollars worth of high-value animals, in order to control a disease that killed fewer cattle in Australia each year than snake bite or lightning strike.

He was also concerned that the Queensland Government appeared to be working on inconsistent and contradictory information.

Biosecurity Australia had initially advised the Kirks to move forward with testing, but then put that program at a standstill, which the Kirks had been told was because of the number of tests required to conduct whole-herd analysis on Rockley.

He said former Qld chief vet Dr Ron Glanville, now assisting the BJD program in an advisory role, had also made comments that Queensland was “not really looking at a widespread eradication program in the State that has a widespread endemic infection”, which contracted the Queensland Government’s statements that eradication was achievable. He added that Dr Glanville had also stated that most of Australia’s export markets had JD already, which raised questions about the justification for pursuing eradication of the disease in Australia.

“At present, we continue to refuse testing on the basis that the results are not only unreliable and inaccurate, but promise no future benefit to an eradication plan for our herd or the management of the disease throughout the state of Queensland,” the Kirks said.  

“If complete eradication is the only option for us, we need to be offered adequate management tools to continue with our breeding program. 

“With availability to today’s advanced scientific resources, we do not agree with the slaughtering of cattle for diagnostic purposes.”

The Kirks believe producers would be more than capable of handling and controlling the disease effectively if management was handed back to producers and they were provided with a vaccine (Pfizer is due to commercially release a vaccine next month), the PCR test and relevant information public awareness campaigns.

“BJD has existed in Australia for many years but we feel it is now imperative to destigmatise the severity associated with the disease, to remove the stringent regulations and to bring the management of the disease out into the open to encourage farmers to manage the issue, as is now the case in the sheep and dairy industry,” Mr Kirk said. 

“Leptospirosis is an example of where producers are managing this notifiable disease successfully using the vaccine which also helps to reduce the shedding of the bacteria by cattle.  Leptospirosis has a proven correlation to human health, whereas BJD does not.”

While the Cattle Council of Australia provides a councillor to assist producers affected by BJD, the Kirks also believe that role should be filled by an independent and impartial councillor, to ensure affected producers are given the support they need without the influence of an organisation that supports a specific approach to managing the disease.

The Kirks said industry representatives, Cattle Council of Australia and AgForce had provided limited support and understanding for Rockley’s situation and for fellow affected producers. 

They also expressed their belief that existing policies would force property owners not to report future suspected cases of BJD.

“From day one we have endeavoured to take an honest and open approach with our partners and the public with regards to the BJD outbreak at Rockley.

“However, due to the lack of support and enforced policies, it is highly unlikely any further suspect cases of the disease will be reported to Biosecurity Queensland and this disease will be driven underground. 

“The effects of this could create a significantly larger, more unmanageable problem with unknown repercussions for the beef industry.  The policies that are enforced with BJD are putting an end to a number of hard-working, dedicated and industry-focused families and must be readdressed and rectified immediately .

Queensland minister for agriculture John McVeigh response

Queensland Minister for Agriculture John McVeigh issued the following statement to Beef Central in response to the Kirk's decision not to participate in further testing:

“The decision by the Kirks to not allow further testing of the Rockley herd is disappointing given that is where the source of the BJD was found. 

“Nevertheless I recognise the stress they are under and remain committed to working with them and other producers in relation to this insidious disease.

“Beef industry leaders and my Department have done everything to try to help the Kirks through these challenges and industry has strongly urged me to prioritise remaining testing of the Rockley herd.  Not being able to conduct that testing could potentially delay the industry-driven program even further.

“BJD was confirmed at Rockley by a DAFF veterinarian on November 20, after the Kirks called for assistance, and since that time we have been liaising with 130-odd other property owners who are working and cooperating with the Department.  It is concerning that the Kirks have apparently taken comments from senior DAFF officers and former staff out of context in order to reach their decision and I again appeal to them and other producers to work with my Department as we manage this outbreak along the lines that industry has repeatedly insisted we follow.

“Dr Ron Glanville, former Chief Veterinary Officer, is leading the industry liaison in the BJD response. I’ve asked him to contact the Kirks and spend whatever time is necessary to work with them on their response strategy, to get the best outcome for all affected producers.

“I reiterate that the decision to maintain Queensland’s Protected Zone status for BJD is driven by industry not government. It is the beef industry that wants Queensland’s protected status to remain, as confirmed at an industry meeting just prior to Christmas.

“Progress is being made and we currently have 125 properties on movement restrictions, down from the original 170 properties.  

“Testing has commenced, but as we have said on numerous occasions the process is highly complex.

“A number of concurrent tests must be carried out to effectively test for BJD and these tests can take 12 weeks or more if complications arise.

“In regard to financial assistance, we’re working with industry to implement a levy-funded ‘assistance package’ because we understand it’s not viable for individual producers to bear the burden of this response alone.”

 

Full Rockley Stud media statement issued 7 January 2013

“Since the recent outbreak of Bovine Johne’s Disease (BJD) in November 2012, recent media publications inferred that Rockley will undertake herd testing to detect the prevalence of the bacteria.  Still under quarantine, we remain firm in our decision to decline testing until further clarity and direction of the future eradication program is outlined.

In the earlier stages of the process, we were advised to move forward with testing, however, for unknown reasons at this time, this was put to a standstill by Queensland Chief Veterinarian, Dr Rick Symons.  It was later revealed by our local Biosecurity Officer that the cancellation occurred due to the vast number of tests that needed to be carried out at Rockley.  This implied that Biosecurity Queensland was unwilling to use interstate labs in the testing to assist coming to further conclusions regarding the extent of the BJD situation.

At present, we continue to refuse testing on the basis that the results are not only unreliable and inaccurate but promise no future benefit to an eradication plan for our herd or the management of the disease throughout the state of Queensland.  If complete eradication is the only option for us, we need to be offered adequate management tools to continue with our breeding program.  With availability to today’s advanced scientific resources, we do not agree with the slaughtering of cattle for diagnostic purposes.

After further research and speaking with other participants of the Market Assurance Program (MAP) program in southern states, we believe it will not provide us with long term benefits or guaranteed assurance; therefore we would be reluctant to join a similar plan if one was put forth for Queensland.  People in the MAP program are forced to do ongoing regular testing.  Why would buyers risk purchasing cattle when there is still a probability of BJD being traced back and quarantined as an end result?

BJD remains a non-threatening disease to humans and until its recent discovery has had no impact on the quality of our business.  Our main concern now lies in the hands of the Government Policy and the current quarantine restrictions.  As producers, we are more than capable of handling and controlling the disease effectively if we can be provided with the upcoming Pfizer vaccine, PCR test, relevant information and a public awareness campaign.

BJD has existed in Australia for many years but we feel it is now imperative to destigmatize the severity associated with the disease; remove the stringent regulations; and bring the management of the disease out into the open to encourage farmers to manage the issue as is now the case in the sheep and dairy industry.  Leptospirosis is an example of where producers are managing this notifiable disease successfully using the vaccine which also helps to reduce the shedding of the bacteria by cattle.  Leptospirosis has a proven correlation to human health, whereas BJD does not.

To maintain its future livelihood, the industry is in need of an independent, impartial Government Councillor to fully manage the current situation, businesses and families involved.  To deal with problems, currently available to us is an affiliated councillor from Cattle Council of Australia who appears to have a conflict of interest and has thus far proven to be of limited benefit.  In southern states where serious depression and even suicide have occurred, emotional support and guidance, particularly for remote rural areas is crucial.  Since making our situation public the support from friends, family and the general public has been invaluable, providing us with strength through this extremely tough time and is of far greater value than that of a councillor.

As Queensland aims to keep its “protected status”, there are no hard figures or comparison of the cost/benefit analysis to support the implementation of the suggested eradication plan.  Rockley and other affected producers should not hold the financial and emotional responsibility of keeping the state a protected BJD area.  It is important to note that BJD is present in the majority of the countries Australia trades with and as stated by Dr. Ron Glanville, “it is true that all our export markets probably have JD already.”  The initial detection of BJD at Rockley has provided the Biosecurity Queensland team with valuable information and our business and potential sales should not suffer as a consequence.

Industry representatives, Cattle Council of Australia and AgForce has provided limited support and understanding for Rockley’s situation and fellow affected producers.  The department of agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) similarly has implemented inconsistent measures with conflicting advice towards reaching a solution on a case by case basis.

The Minister, Mr. John McVeigh, has formally guaranteed eradication of BJD but former Chief Veterinarian, Dr. Ron Glanville recently stated that Queensland “is not really looking at a widespread eradication program in the State that has a widespread endemic infection.”  We can appreciate that our Queensland state borders need to remain open but future and previous buyers need to be informed of the risks involved by introducing cattle which could be linked to the disease.  We are curious to know why this information has not been made aware to those involved in the past.

To date, we have received no financial compensation because we have not yet implemented an eradication plan and are therefore not entitled to the $10,000 offered by Cattle Council of Australia to be used towards eradicating the disease.  We estimate our losses at over $400,000 from our annual bull sales alone and our plans of expanding our business have been decimated.  Our 58 year-old Brahman stud reputation has been diminished overnight.  Additionally, we believe our purchasers should be compensated at market value if they are forced to destroy the animals to help eradicate BJD.  Purchases made from Rockley have been up to the value of $60,000 for a bull and $32,000 for a heifer alone.

From day one we have endeavoured to take an honest and open approach with our partners and the public with regards to the BJD outbreak at Rockley, however due to the lack of support and enforced policies, it is highly unlikely any further suspect cases of the disease will be reported to Biosecurity Queensland and this disease will be driven underground.  The effects of this could create a significantly larger, more unmanageable problem with unknown repercussions for the beef industry.  The policies that are enforced with BJD are putting an end to a number of hard-working, dedicated and industry-focused families and must be readdressed and rectified immediately .
 

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