Monday, April 22, 2024

PULSE: The human side of M bovis

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They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Many South Island farmers got a very good look at that road as the Government “helped” them through the Mycoplasma bovis (M bovis) eradication programme. So far, there have been over 171,600 cattle forcibly slaughtered from 260 farms.  A recent University of Otago study found that the “poorly managed government response to the 2017 Mycoplasma bovis outbreak inflicted significant and lasting trauma on farmers”. 
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If you farm in the South Island, where 75% of the culled properties were located, then this finding is no surprise. The heavy-handed, whole-herd eradication strategy that MPI adopted cast a very wide net. In addition to “depopulating’’ farms, a further 2000 properties were thwarted by movement restrictions and many more were under the scrutiny of “active surveillance”.

If Southern farmers weren’t directly involved, or consoling someone who was, then they were at least feeling it via the sluggish cattle prices over the past three years.

M bovis was first detected in July 2017. The market was slow to react to this incursion through the rest of 2017 and early 2018. There was some extra caution around calf trading, but prices were comparable to previous seasons.

By March 2018, the decision was made to cull 28 herds thought to be exposed to the bacteria. Many local farmers breathed a sigh of relief. That relief was short-lived, however, when further herds showed antibodies for M bovis. That May it was announced that MPI planned to slaughter an estimated 190 farms and 126,000 cattle over a 10-year program.

Market confidence unravelled rapidly from that point. 

M bovis, in the NZ beef setting, is almost entirely asymptomatic. Testing stock prior to trading was impossible. In fact, any farmer-led testing at all was off the table. With contact tracing running months to years behind actual trading and farmers ever-fearful of getting “the call” from MPI.

The store cattle markets issued a vote of no confidence on any cattle that had originated from a South Island dairy farm. Prices for South Island dairy-beef cattle, particularly the calves and yearling stock, fell into a hole that they are still struggling to climb out of three years later. Relative to slaughter prices, which were at record highs heading into the pandemic, the store prices for Friesian bulls weakened significantly. Meanwhile, prices for weaner Friesian bulls and dairy-beef calves have been dangerously close to the cost of production for the past two seasons.

On the flip side, prices for straight beef calves pushed up to unsustainable levels as buyers targeted stock that had never set foot on a dairy farm. 

When high calf prices were not backed up by strong slaughter returns, buyers were reluctant to re-enter the straight-beef market in the following seasons.

The South Island has limited beef slaughter capacity and has been dealing with persistent prime cattle backlogs over the past three seasons. The main culprit recently has been storage concerns brought about by covid-19 disruptions, as well as a growing South Island beef breeding herd. But, it has to be said that the extra cattle in the system from the M bovis slaughters didn’t go unnoticed. M bovis culls were taking priority when processor throughput was already overwhelmed. This put further pressure on beef prices, particularly for prime cattle, which always get the short end of the stick when there is plenty of manufacturing beef available.

While the world has been distracted by covid-19, the number of farms on the M bovis cull list has quietly shrunk to single digits, with a few farms popping up occasionally in Canterbury. The markets are almost ready to forget the M bovis issue. South Island dairy-beef prices have shown buoyancy in recent weeks and calf rearers are making hopeful enquiries about the upcoming calf rearing season. But the farmers that were swarmed by bureaucrats in boiler suits may carry their scars for much longer.

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