The unwelcome arrival of the cattle disease Mycoplasma bovis in the Waikato was just a matter of time. The more that is emerging about the untracked movement of animals makes it highly likely that other farms will be infected long before containment succeeds, if that is still possible.

The rapid known spread of the infection has been a costly wake-up call for the dairy industry, and a reminder how devastating animal disease can be for the primary sector.

Thirty-nine properties have been identified with the disease since it first was detected in cattle near Oamaru last July. Hundreds of farms are "of interest" because they unknowingly took animals from operations with the disease or are near infected properties.

The likelihood that the disease will be found in every region of the country confirms that cattle effectively have been, as one expert put it, unwitting "stealth bombs" as they were delivered to other properties.

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The failure of measures to eradicate or stop the disease spreading raises questions whether the current approach is suitable.

The Ministry of Primary Industries has been managing the biosecurity response, but its performance has come under fire from the rural sector. This is not surprising when livelihoods are at stake, and cattle culls ordered.

Over 20,000 cows have been slaughtered to try and halt the disease. It is a huge number of animals with many seemingly healthy and showing no obvious signs of the disease, which fortunately does not infect humans or present food safety risks.

The cost of the outbreak is already estimated at $60 million, and Finance Minister Grant Robertson indicated yesterday the financial burden may yet be higher.

Under the National Animal Identification and Tracing system, cattle and deer farmers must have stock tagged and registered, and also record and confirm any animals that are bought, sold or moved.

The Government has been highly critical of farmer compliance with the system, but it has at least allowed MPI to identify farms where the disease may be present, even if no one yet knows how it came to get into the country. But the Government's estimate that compliance with the registration system may be low as 30 per cent suggests both an urgent need get all farmers on board and dispel a casual approach to biosecurity.

It is possible that a rethink of the way cows are managed is required. Farmers need to be alert to signs of the disease and embrace failsafe measures to protect the integrity of clean farms.

Farmers in Europe, the United States, China and Canada deal with the disease. New Zealand farmers may need to as well. Given the apparent lack of faith in the ability of MPI to manage the crisis, the big rural institutions need to lift their profile.

The likes of DairyNZ, Beef+Lamb, and Federated Farmers are well placed to convey vital messages to rural communities about managing farms in the presence of the infection. They are organisations which might mind it easier to win the ear of farmers than a Government agency which arrives bearing bad news.