A stock truck waits on a quiet rural road in Taranaki on a sunny Thursday morning while the driver waits for a phone call.

A few hundred metres along the road, 21 cows are being herded into a yard.

It is eerily quiet. Despite there being 10 or 12 people gathered, no-one is talking much.

Occasionally the silence is broken by the loud, gulping sobs of a young woman, the 37-year-old farmer who leases this land.

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Today, 21 of her herd of Friesians are to be culled, as part of the nationwide fight against Mycoplasma bovis.

Cows with the dreaded blue Mycoplasma bovis ear tags are herded away for culling from a Taranaki farm. Photo / Ilona Hanne
Cows with the dreaded blue Mycoplasma bovis ear tags are herded away for culling from a Taranaki farm. Photo / Ilona Hanne

In June, her farm was placed under a "notice of direction" - issued by MPI when it is believed that taking stock and other goods from a property could spread the bacterial disease.

A further 22 cows were included in Thursday's cull list but animal welfare laws meant they can't be transported today. The rules mean animals who are close to calving, have just calved or are on antibiotics cannot be transported.

They will still be culled, this is simply a stay of execution.

As for the rest of the young farmer's herd, their fate will be decided once the test results from the cows culled today are returned. A process which can take several weeks.

A herd brought into a holding area prior to being loaded onto a truck for culling. Photo / Ilona Hanne
A herd brought into a holding area prior to being loaded onto a truck for culling. Photo / Ilona Hanne

After this, a second set of samples will be taken and another lab test completed. If M. Bovis isn't detected in the tests, the notice of direction will be lifted.

If the results are unclear, a third round of tests will be done and, if M Bovis is shown as positive or "likely", the farm will become a restricted place. If it is determined to be an infected property, then the entire herd will be culled.

The MPI website says it can be a long process from a notice of direction being issued to the results being received. In this case, it has been more than eight weeks so far.

For the young woman - in her first year on this farm - it has been an incredibly stressful few months. As one of only two properties in Taranaki to have been issued with an notice of direction, she has felt isolated and alone.

"It's been bloody hell for her. You can quote me on that," says her mother.

"It's bloody heartbreaking. Not one of these cows being killed today have actually tested positive for M. Bovis. There's been no confirmed infection on her farm."

The people gathered around the farmer today are all there to support her. Some, such as her mother and a friend she has asked to be her support person are there at her invitation. Others are there in official roles: the Rural Support Trust, the farm owners, the vet, an MPI official, farm workers, even the local police officer is present.

The farm owners have been supporting her throughout, turning up with food, a listening ear and a clear belief in her ability to get through it.

Today, their ute is loaded with thermoses for hot drinks and morning tea to share with all present once the truck has left. When the cows finally leave, they too are clearly upset, and take a moment to wrap their arms around each other. Witnesses to their leasee's grief, hurting for, and with, her.

Mike Green, chair of the Taranaki Rural Support Trust, says he and others present to support the farmer, "started our day at around 3am, texting, talking, making a plan for how we would get her through this today".

Everyone says they are there to support her through what one of those present calls "this shitty day".

No-one is "just doing their job" today, it would be impossible to ignore the clear grief the young woman is experiencing as she farewells each of her animals individually.

Silence on the farm after a herd has been removed for culling in the battle to wipe out Mycoplasma bovis. Photo / Ilona Hanne
Silence on the farm after a herd has been removed for culling in the battle to wipe out Mycoplasma bovis. Photo / Ilona Hanne

One of the support people says the farmer's grief isn't surprising.

"They're not just cows, they're all special to her, and they are her livelihood too. She spends her whole day with these animals, she cares about each and every one of them."

As the phone call is made, telling the truck driver it is time to collect the cows, the farmer's dog starts whining. The labrador has picked up on its owner's emotions and is unsettled.

As the truck backs into the yard, friends try to encourage the farmer to step away, to not watch as her animals are loaded.

She walks away for a while, but is soon back. While it is hard for her to watch her animals being loaded, her care for them hasn't stopped, and she is insistent on watching to ensure each animal loaded is in good health. At times she dry retches from sobbing so much.

Once the truck is loaded, she once again determinedly pulls herself together. She will not let her emotions stop her from doing right by her cows.

Walking up to the truck she peers through each of the stock truck windows and says a final goodbye to each cow in turn. "It's okay" she says to them, calling each one by name.

Finally, after she has farewelled each one, her strength deserts her. Supported by the farm owner, she steps away from the truck.

Once again, it is almost silent, with only the noise of a dog whimpering and a young woman crying to be heard.

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