A rural vet writes of a small group of cattle farmers who, assisted by the executive of the Australian Association of Cattle Veterinarians, have excluded all others from funding for an important diseases eradication program, funding collected from all dairy farmers.

The issue relates to access to the Bovine Johne’s Disease Test and Control Program.

Bovine Johne’s Disease is a chronic wasting disease of cattle. It causes unresponsive diarrhea and weight loss and there is no cure. The symptoms of infected cattle do not show until the animals are usually 6-8 years old although the only animals susceptible to infection are calves.

It therefore has a long incubation period.

Infection is caused by a bacteria called Mycobacterium paratuberculosis by the faeco-oral route. The bacteria can persist in the environment for at least 12 months.

It is estimated that about 30% of Victorian dairy herds have animals infected with the disease.

Presence of the disease in a herd has no effect on the sale of dairy products but has serious implications on the sale of cattle and land.

Johne’s Disease has been tenuously linked with Crohn’s Disease in humans which is a very painful and chronic intestinal disease usually requiring multiple surgeries.

There is a blood test available for cattle which detects antibodies to Johne’s Disease. The limitations of the test is that antibodies are produced by infected animals late in the disease process, on average, about 12 months prior to breaking down with clinical infection.

Therefore, an animal infected at birth may not become blood test positive until it is 7 or so years of age.

In 1995, the Victorian Department of Natural Resources and Environment, or the Department of Agriculture as it was known then in one of its incarnations, introduced the Bovine Johne’s Disease Test and Control Program (BJDTCP).

In this program, private veterinarians would sign up farmers with infected herds. The farmers agreed to blood test the herd annually and sell for slaughter any cows testing positive. The DNRE would pay for all the blood testing, pay compensation for cows culled, and pay the vets generously for the blood testing and reporting job.

When the program was announced, there was an Oklahoma-like dash for places in the program because of the generous remuneration for both farmers and vets. Very quickly, 537 farmers were signed up. The funding for the program came from the Cattle Compensation Fund. This fund was originally set up to fund the eradication of Tuberculosis and Brucellosis from cattle in Victoria.

It is composed of a levy paid on all cattle sold for slaughter in Victoria. After the successful eradication of these diseases in the 60s and 70s, the fund was sitting fairly idle. With 537 herds infected with Johne’s Disease signed up to the BJDTCP, the DNRE could quickly see that there was a need for a ceiling on the program to allow sufficient funding by the Cattle Compensation Fund.

The interesting thing was that more than half of the herds signed up were serviced by 3 private veterinary clinics the principals of which just happened to be on the executive of the Australian Association of Cattle Veterinarians who had input into the design of the BJDTCP.

So at this time, the DNRE was tipping hundreds of thousands of dollars collected from all cattle producers in the state, into the coffers of a few private vets and 537 dairy farmers. No problem, thought the DNRE, we will have those herds cleaned up in a few years and other herds can go on the program. But in reality, to this day, not one herd has been cleared of Johne’s Disease by this program and not one new herd has entered onto it.

I have continually argued with the DNRE that the present BJDTCP is an unfair use of money collected from the entire cattle industry lining the pockets of a few private vets and improving the situation of 537 dairy farmers at the expense of the other 7500 in the state. With the same funding, twice as many herds could be included on the program but tested every second year which would have double the effect in removing infected animals from the industry.

After much letter writing yielding minimalist replies, I received a real reply from the Minister for Agriculture, Keith Hamilton last October. In his letter he said that the JDTCP was under review and that suggested changes included biennial testing and increasing the number of herds on the program to 1000.

The joys of democracy, I thought.

The little people do have a say. I quickly contacted 20 of my dairy farmer clients who were most keen to get on the program and told them the wait was over, changes are afoot.

After waiting for an announcement for 6 months, I rang the DNRE who said that the review process was continuing and there were no changes at that stage. And that is where we are now.

A program continues that does nothing for the overall industry effect of the disease in question, using money collected from all cattle farmers in the state, being paid to 537 dairy farmers and a few ex-executives of the Australian Association of Cattle Veterinarians.

It is obvious why the private vets involved and the enrolled farmers are resistant to change. But the question remains, what is in it for the DNRE?

How do they gain by persisting with the status quo?

I believe that if the public were more aware of these sort of dealings by the DNRE in the name of science and disease control, they would be held more accountable. I will continue to lobby for change.

Peter Fray

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