Whether you have followed the Bovine Johne’s Disease (BJD) issue in northern Australia closely or not, spare a thought for those producers at the centre of the crisis.
Through no fault of their own, they have been caught up in a high-impact quarantine response that has followed the detection of three cattle with BJD on the Rockley Brahman Stud near Rockhampton eight months ago.
Unable to feed cattle due to a failed wet season, and restricted from moving cattle from dry paddocks until testing allows quarantine restrictions to be lifted – which for some could be years away – their businesses are bearing the brunt of an industry policy aimed at eradicating BJD.
While the need to maintain a clean herd is understandable, producers at the centre of the crisis say the costs of stamping out the disease must be weighed against the costs of living with it.
And from where they stand, they find it hard to see how the disease itself could be any worse than the cure.
At the Rockley Stud, the Kirk family have lost a bull selling business that was worth $400,000 per year because of the industry policy requiring eradication of BJD. They face a long, slow road to recovery to rebuild their herd through IVF.
At Georgetown in North Queensland, fellow stud Brahman breeder John Bethel, Huonfels, has lost a stud selling business worth $160,000 a year. Deprived of that income by the quarantine restrictions now imposed on his property, he has been surviving on handouts from St Vincent de Paul and the Catholic Church and support from family and friends (More on Mr Bethel’s situation below)
At Karumba, Carpentaria Shire mayor Fred Pascoe says the large indigenous owned Delta Downs cattle operation, of which he is a director, has been left “one million dollars in the red” as a direct consequence of not being unable to ship cattle to live export markets, and not being able to sell store cattle to backgrounders because of the movement restrictions.
Costs outweigh compensation
It is worth remembering that these heavy impacts, shared to various degrees by no less than 170 properties that were quarantined following the BJD detection at Rockley, have not been caused by the disease itself. In fact documented evidence of productivity losses from BJD in Queensland herds is hard to find.
These impacts are the direct result of a policy set by cattle industry leaders and the State Government which is aimed at keeping Queensland free from the disease.
It is also worth remembering that the compensation being offered to affected businesses like Rockley, Huonfels and Delta Downs appears likely to fall far short of the considerable losses they have incurred from the eradication and quarantine policy.
Many are clinging to hope that a new biosecurity fund, to be financed initially by a $2 million Queensland Government grant and then by voluntary producer levies going forward, might provide fair compensation for their losses.
In December last year, Queensland Government ministers voiced assurances that no individual producer would be asked to carry the burden of the State’s policy aimed at eradicating BJD.
But when details of the assistance package were finally unveiled just over a week ago, there was little joy in the detail for many affected producers. It confirmed their fears that the the true extent of their losses would not be covered by industry or Government, and they will ultimately have to bear the cost of the State’s BJD policy themselves.
The maximum support is capped at $50,000 in the first year, and to a total $200,000, and seemingly available only to producers who agree to commence on-farm slaughter and testing programs to support the eradication policy, sacrificing generations of breeding in the process.
Policy to protect low-prevalence status, market access
The eradication-focused program is a policy agreed to by industry group AgForce and the Queensland Government, and is designed to protect Queensland’s low-prevalence BJD status.
The policy is based on the assumption that BJD can be controlled and possibly eradicated in the State, and on the view that existing markets for live cattle can use BJD as a tool to block market access.
AgForce cattle president Howard Smith argues that while the policy is by no means easy on those producers impacted, an all-of-industry approach must be taken for the long term benefit of the entire cattle sector.
He says AgForce wants to avoid the type of restrictive and costly regulations in Queensland that have been imposed on producers in southern states where the disease is now considered endemic.
“This would put immeasurable costs and productivity pressure on the whole industry in the long term,” he said.
‘High impact response for low impact disease’
However, Queensland cattle producers whose businesses are facing potential financial ruin as a result of the eradication policy say there is little evidence to suggest BJD poses the threat industry leaders say it does.
They argue that it would be less costly and less painful for all if BJD was de-stigmatised and the eradication approach abandoned in favour of allowing BJD to be managed on-farm with the use of vaccinations where required.
The reasons they cite to support their position that industry would be better off living with BJD include:
- Widespread evidence from southern herds that BJD causes minimal production impacts in infected herds. A Melbourne University Survey, published in the Australian Veterinary Journal, of 107 BJD infected beef properties found that 43 had never observed a clinical case, and, of the 64 that did, 51 (80pc) reported only ever having one clinical case. Only one of the 107 reported more than 1pc of the herd with symptoms of Johne’s Disease per year, with an average of less than 0.2pc of herd;
- BJD is endemic in every country to which Australia exports cattle, raising questions about the legitimacy of claims it must be controlled to protect access to overseas markets;
- No country has successfully eradicated BJD to date.
- More than 100,000 heifers are exported every year from Australia’s southern dairy herds, where BJD is endemic, challenging views that the presence of BJD poses a significant threat to market access;
- Johne’s Disease is carried and spread by many species of wild and domesticated animals, and has re-emerged in livestock reintroduced to paddocks after several years of restocking, making eradication extremely difficult to achieve;
- Recent tests by the NSW Government Laboratory (EMAI) have indicated that the Queensland stain is a bison strain. This is consistent with the infection having entered from overseas, with many pointing to the original source likely to have been a bull imported from the United States in the early 1980s that died from a wasting scouring disease after standing at three Queensland studs. That suggests a high likelihood that the infection has been circulating in the Queensland herd for 30 years, much longer than previously thought, making the goal of eradication seem even more difficult to achieve. The length of time that Johne’s is likely to have been circulating and without causing significant reported productivity losses in that time also raises questions about how serious its impacts would be if management was de-regulated.
BJD an ‘outbreak of regulation’
Victorian veterinarian David Rendell has studied BJD prevalence closely and says that even in southern States where the disease is under management, BJD infection rates remain typically very low in beef cattle herds, averaging less than 0.2pc of adult herd with clinical symptoms per year and cases mostly in older cattle (six years plus).
One survey of 16,000 cattle in 98 beef herds selected randomly from New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia revealed only four confirmed cases of BJD, an infection rate of just 0.025pc. Three of these cases were from beef herds in northern NSW. A similar survey in Tasmania of 19,300 cattle in 236 beef herds revealed only three confirmed cases of BJD, an infection rate of just 0.02pc.
“Even if we assume that blood tests only detect 30pc of infected cows, the survey results indicate that the average industry infection rate is less than 0.1pc,” Dr Rendell says.
“By comparison, pestivirus, which also causes a terminal wasting disease that the industry manages with vaccinations, has an infection rate 10 to 20 times higher.”
Dr Rendell describes the BJD issue as an “outbreak of regulation”.
Stud cattle breeder surviving on handouts
When Georgetown district cattleman John Bethel learned on December 3 last year that his herd was being placed under full movement restrictions because he had previously bought a Rockley bull, the development topped off a year that couldn’t have been much worse.
“We’d had spoiling winter rain which blackened all the feed, and cattle were standing in belly deep grass and dying, it was that bad,” Mr Bethel explained.
“Then we had all those wildfires which were just impossible to stop.
“It took me six weeks, most of that time on my own, to get that out.
“And then right at the end I got put into quarantine.”
Mr Bethel said the stigma associated with being placed into BJD quarantine dealt a heavy blow to his Huonfels Brahman Stud.
“I lost all of my stud bulls and paddock sale bull sales, I lost all of my clients.
“$160,000 it cost me straight up, just wiped it, and basically put me in default with my bank.
“And absolutely no ability to earn a cent, because the only market left to us was meatworks and you can imagine the condition of the cattle.
“So for three months I have survived on St Vincent de Paul, the Catholic Church, various other charitable institutions, family and friends.”
Mr Bethel said he is angry to have had a successful cattle operation placed into financial jeopardy by what he terms as “very low impact disease”.
“It has never been eradicated anywhere it has been, and there is a not a single market that we export cattle to that will not take cattle because you’ve got BJD,” he said.
“That whole thing is just bullshit, it is a lie to support the Johne’s industry.”
He is still waiting to see full guidelines on how compensation will work, but believes he is unlikely to be eligible for assistance because he is refusing to kill his Rockley Bull.
The bull has tested negative to BJD on both culture and PCR tests but Mr Bethel has been told he still must slaughter the animal.
He said he had also been asked to sign a confidentiality agreement which he refuses to do, concerned he would be signing away his rights and indemnifying the Department from prosecution at the same time.
“I haven’t killed my bull, he is alive,” Mr Bethel said.
‘All we want to see is fair and just compensation. Simple as that.’
“I refuse to kill him, he is the best red stud bull I have ever had, they’re not going to compensate me and I am not in a position to go and buy another bull, so he is staying alive.”
Mr Bethel said Queensland agriculture minister John McVeigh was “a good minister and a really good fella to deal with”, but had been “sold a pup by industry” in the eradication focused policy.
“The whole thing should be wiped,” he said.
He believes the current policy and lack of adequate compensation will succeed only in driving the disease underground, because few producers will be willing to report suspected BJD animals knowing the consequences they now face. Producers would be more inclined to “shoot them and drag them down the flat” he said
“All this has done has pushed people into a position where they have got no choice but to take legal action,” Mr Bethel said.
“All we want to see is fair and just compensation. Simple as that.”
Delta Downs director Fred Pascoe told Beef Central that the industry should step away from an eradication policy and adopt an on-farm management based approach instead.
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