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Van Leeuwen owner 'devastated' by cattle disease outbreak

Van Leeuwen owner 'devastated' by cattle disease outbreak, says business could go under

By Rebecca Howard

Dec. 20 (BusinessDesk) - Aad van Leeuwen found himself at the centre of a storm when he reported an outbreak of Mycoplasma bovis in his South Canterbury herds but said the bacterial cattle disease didn’t originate on his farms and if government compensation doesn’t come through soon his operation could go under.

"It’s been devastating," the owner of Van Leeuwen Dairy Group told BusinessDesk. "We are struggling at the moment. Because we notified the disease we are eligible for compensation, but it’s a battle. It’s not coming through. The government is very slow and confusing. This could put us under if it doesn’t come through. It’s as simple as that."

Van Leeuwen Dairy is a large-scale, high-performance dairy business in the South Island with 16 farms and associated business, including silage.

The disease poses no food safety risk but can hit hard at cattle, causing udder infection, abortion, pneumonia, and arthritis. There is no cure. The outbreak reported by Van Leeuwen Dairy in July was New Zealand’s first official citing of a disease that has been prevalent in other countries for decades. The Ministry for Primary Industries moved to contain it, locking down properties, ordering the cull of about 4,800 cattle on seven farms and carrying out 60,000 tests on cattle and milk samples to date.

Van Leeuwen, who owns the company with his wife, said all the farms remain under “restricted place notices” or quarantine, although the outbreak was initially reported on three farms – all outdoor. He doesn't know how long the quarantine will be in place. Most of the culled cows are from his properties. Prior to the culling, the group was milking around 12,000 cows. He estimates some 1,400 to 1,800 of his milking cows have been culled. The remainder are young stock or stock owned jointly with share-milkers, he said.

There is no insurance for the loss of stock or the loss of production. However, affected farmers are eligible for compensation if MPI's exercise of legal powers has caused a verifiable loss as a result of damage to or destruction of the person's property, or as a result of restrictions imposed on the movement or disposal of the person's goods.

Van Leeuwen said his company has applied for compensation but “we are dealing with a bureaucratic machine,” he said. The cumbersome system will make farmers think twice about reporting outbreaks, he warned.

Federated Farmers President Katie Milne said farmers shouldn't end up in a worse position if they are directed by the ministry to cull animals.

“That side of it should come out in the wash, but it is a bit of a process to work your way through those systems,” she said.

MPI’s director of response Geoff Gwyn said that compensation can only be paid “on verifiable losses and it’s often the case that further evidence is required.” The process can take time, which is appropriate given it is taxpayer money, he said. However, “we empathise with their position and are doing our utmost to resolve their claims as fast as possible. Our compensation team has been working closely with them for some time.”

In the Half Year Economic and Fiscal Update, the Treasury saw risk around possible biosecurity compensation for a series of incursions that have impacted the agricultural sector, including Mycoplasma bovis. It did not provide a dollar figure.

Meanwhile, the disease is now officially reported to be on 12 farms nationwide, including one in the Hastings District and several in Winton, something the Feds' Milne said was “gutting” as it made it that much harder to contain.

Against that backdrop, “we will not be directing further culling on new infected properties until we have a better understanding of the situation,” an MPI spokesperson said. MPI has been holding community meetings to provide farmers with more information, including two this week in the newly impacted areas.

It has also completed a report on potential pathways which has been reviewed by an international technical advisory group and they are currently incorporating the suggestions. The report will now be released in the New Year.

“We have always said with this disease outbreak it is unlikely we will be able to pin down the exact pathway,” the spokesperson said.

Van Leeuwen insists it didn’t originate on his farms, which are self-contained and haven’t imported any animals from offshore.

He suspects the disease came onto his farm in a truck as trucks are in use all day and aren’t washed between loads.

“We would have got it from somewhere. We didn’t make this. You can’t. Originally, it would have come from overseas somewhere because the rest of the world has had it for 30 or 40 years,” he said.

He underscored that many of the new outbreaks have no connection to any of the group’s farms, despite MPI saying early indications are that all properties have links with the Van Leeuwen Dairy through cattle movements.

Van Leeuwen says the farms in question “have been buying and selling and they’ve got young stock grazing everywhere. The job (of containing the outbreak) has gotten much bigger,” he said.

He also said that while one of the latest farms is connected to his company, the Van Leeuwens didn’t send cattle to that farm but received heifers, before the outbreak. While he may have been the first to report the outbreak, he suspects it has been in New Zealand for several decades.

MPI’s Gwyn said they couldn’t rule out any possibilities. "The purpose of the detailed tracing work our investigators are doing is to establish these links.”

The government, meanwhile, is pushing for greater traceability. Agriculture and Biosecurity Minister Damien O’Connor this week called on officials to take a tougher approach with farmers and all other users who do not meet their obligations under the National Animal Identification and Tracing Scheme. O'Connor said preliminary data shows most animal movements to sale yards and meat processors are recorded within the required 48 hours after they are completed, however, a large percentage of farm-to-farm movements are not recorded at all.

“With outbreaks like this, speed of response is vital to containing a disease, so it’s more important than ever that our farmers and industry use this system," he said.

Milne said the outbreak had underscored the need for farmers to take steps like setting up electric fences to avoid nose-to-nose contact between herds from different farms and ensure people coming on to the farm disinfect their gumboots. Farmers need “to make their farms a biosecurity fortress,” she said.


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