More than 20,000 cattle at properties infected with the Mycoplasma bovis disease will be culled, the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) has confirmed.
"The de-population of entire herds on all 28 Infected Properties (IPs) in New Zealand is a critical measure to control the spread of the disease and we will be working closely with those farmers to plan how this will happen," said MPI's response director Geoff Gwyn.
"This will be a big job and won't happen overnight, but we'll be meeting with the affected farmers in the coming days to discuss the operation, develop the plans and talk through compensation."
Farmers would be compensated for their verifiable losses "as quickly as possible", MPI said.
After the cull, and once farms were cleaned, these farmers could then start re-building a disease-free herd from scratch.
Agriculture and Biosecurity Minister Damien O'Connor said the cull decision gave farmers much-needed certainty over their futures.
"The Ministry for Primary Industries will begin a cull of 22,332 cattle on all properties infected with Mycoplasma bovis after scientific testing and tracing confirmed the disease was not endemic. This is a critical measure to control the spread of the disease," he said.
"Everyone across New Zealand can understand how incredibly difficult it is for these farmers to lose their herds – many of these animals will be known individually. While we still have challenges ahead in managing this outbreak, these families can move forward with their farms and lives.
"MPI is boosting its compensation team to ensure prompt payment.
"Work continues to determine whether we can eradicate or move to long-term management of Mycoplasma bovis."
$400m threat to economy
Today's decision follows estimates that Mycoplasma bovis could cost the country $400 million in economic impact over the next decade.
MPI has confirmed "losses to individual farmers would be a big part of that".
The figures were included in documents released to NZME under the Official Information Act.
New Zealand was one of the last nations in the world without the highly contagious cattle disease until the Ministry for Primary Industries was notified about infected cattle in South Canterbury in July last year.
The latest update from MPI stated there were 28 properties in New Zealand where cattle have tested positive for Mycoplasma bovis.
Symptoms of Mycoplasma bovis included mastitis, polyarthritis (infection of several joints), pneumonia, abortions and meningitis and the disease primarily spread by close contact between animals. However, there were no known food safety risks for humans consuming food from infected animals.
One of the documents released under the OIA, dated October 30, 2017, stated: "Initial assessments put the economic impacts of Mycoplasma bovis in the range of $60 million to $400 million over the next ten years, due to uncertainty about how international markets would respond to New Zealand confirming that it has the disease,".
When asked whether economic impacts meant losses or gains, an MPI spokeswoman said in a statement: "Losses to individual farmers would be a big part of that – but economic impacts go much broader. For example the flow-on effects to affected communities, the impact of changing farm practices to reduce disease risk, effects on wider industry (meat and dairy companies), and even potential impacts (if any) to the wider economy."
When asked whether the impact estimates had changed since October, MPI response director Geoff Gwyn said: "We continue to work on assessing the economic impact of Mycoplasma bovis. The extent of the spread of the disease is critical to understanding potential economic impacts and ascertaining the spread is our key focus right now,".
Funding of $85 million for operational and compensation costs for the outbreak response was approved by Cabinet this month.
The funds would be used until a decision was made on whether or not to attempt eradicating the disease.
On July 17, 2017, MPI was informed a herd on a farm owned by the Van Leeuwen Group had severe health problems.
Samples taken from the herd were confirmed positive for Mycoplasma bovis on July 21.
MPI immediately initiated a biosecurity response to contain the disease.
The documents released under the OIA show "a full eradication would include 14 of the 16 Van Leeuwen Dairy Group farms and could involve up to 18,000 animals".
This month, Minister of Agriculture and Biosecurity Damien O'Connor said a significant piece of work was underway "to look at the technical feasibility of eradication and cost-benefit or eradication versus long-term management".
All but one of the infected properties so far were in the South Island so officials were considering focusing on making the North Island Mycoplasma bovis free.
Last week, O'Connor announced an intensive programme to track cattle movements across Cook Strait.
"Operation Cook Strait will be based where trucks stop in the upper South Island and will be run by the Ministry for Primary Industries. It will check that farmers moving cattle from the South to the North Island comply with their legal obligations under the NAIT Act.
"Non-compliance will result in fines. It begins today and is likely to be extended to other parts of the country."
O'Connor said he remained hopeful Mycoplasma bovis could be eradicated from New Zealand.
"Eradication is what everybody would like but it has to be technically possible, practically achievable and affordable for all. If we can't improve NAIT [National Animal Identification and Tracing scheme] compliance, we cannot get past go."
Gwyn said a small number of beef units were affected but so far "the majority of the infected properties are dairy farms or dairy calf raising businesses".
The dairy industry was New Zealand's largest export earner.
It generated $14.6 billion in export revenue for the year ended June 2017.
Properties infected with Mycoplasma bovis in New Zealand so far:
Canterbury – 2 (1 active)
Hawkes' Bay (near Hastings) – 1
Mid-Canterbury (Ashburton) – 4
South Canterbury/North Otago – 11 (10 active)
Otago (Middlemarch) – 2
Southland (Winton, Lumsden, Invercargill, Gore) – 10
Industry Groups welcomed the move.
"Although this is a hard step for farmers, the de-population of these herds is an important move towards eradicating the disease from New Zealand," the farmer-funded Dairy NZ said.
"Although removing these animals from the 28 infected properties is a considered and sensible approach, we should not underestimate how it will affect the farmers involved to lose the herds they've managed for years," Carol Barnao, DairyNZ's general manager policy, said.
"According to MPI, the bulk milk testing has identified only one new infected property to date, and this gives us some reassurance that M. bovis is not endemic to New Zealand. This is an extremely positive sign," Barnao said.
Kimberly Crewther, chief executive of the Dairy Companies Association of NZ, said she welcomed MPI's confidence that M. bovis was not well established in New Zealand.
"The national surveillance programme has been a major undertaking and we're pleased to see it contributing to the information necessary for moving forward with response decisions," she said in a statement.