A group of young Victorian dairy representatives saw first hand in February the impact a serious disease outbreak is having on the New Zealand industry.
The outbreak of Mycoplasma bovis was causing mayhem in the NZ dairy industry, one of the participants in New Zealand study tour told the Young Farmer Breakfast held as part of the United Dairyfarmers of Victoria conference on May 4.
Sharnie Johnson, Nambrok, was one of seven young people who took part in the Gardiner Dairy Foundation funded UDV tour.
“I had no idea of this disease or the extent of its impact,” Ms Johnson told the breakfast.
“With the virus now spreading to over 30 farms, authorities are now planning to cull at least 22,000 dairy cattle in the South Island by July.”
Ms Johnson said the disease, which could occur in cattle of all ages, could cause respiratory issues, abortion and lameness.
Most of the dairy farmers the group visited were concerned not just about the potential impact of the virus in their own herds but how the outbreak would affect the entire industry, she said.
Another tour participant, Ashlee Bloxidge, Nar Nar Goon, said the Mycoplasma outbreak, along with ongoing problems with tuberculosis and Bovine Johnes Disease, meant NZ farmers were more cautious than their Australian counterparts about protecting their farms against disease.
“So most farms we looked at had strict sign-in procedures, boot wash and washing stations,” she said.
“They had really good boundary fences in place.
“They would make sure sick animals were isolated and quarantined as well as possible to limit spread of disease.
“They also made sure that equipment that was used between farms was cleaned appropriately.”
Seeing how devastating a disease outbreak could be not just to an individual but to an entire industry really put into perspective the importance of biosecurity.
“Biosecurity is definitely something we shouldn’t be taking for granted and we should be really taking into consideration when we are going on farms and moving our stock,” Ms Bloxidge said.
Another participant Rhiannon Parry, North Wonthaggi, said she found it interesting that in some practices, farmers were less concerned about biosecurity.
“I found it really interesting that they were on us about washing our shoes and they were talking about going to the extreme of washing under the milk tankers as they came onto their properties … and yet they still run cattle down the road when they go to their outblocks,” she said.
“So they are going to one extreme but turning their blind eye to another.”
Tour participants also spoke about the challenges the NZ industry was facing that they saw limiting its future growth.
Craig Emmett, Stanhope, said the dairy industry was not seen in the greatest light in NZ.
“They are having a public perception battle, which they are working to try to combat,” he said.
“They are seen as dirty, polluting the waterways, and they get a lot of the blame.”
This had led to increased regulation of the industry, particularly about how much fertiliser it could use and banning nutrient run-off from farms.
Katherine Byrne, Ellinbank, said the message was not to expect any more farms to be converted to dairy - something that had helped drive the industry’s growth in the past 20 years.
They were also told that many farms had become too big to sell, which was making it difficult for young people to reach farm ownership.
Elsi Neave, Pirron Yallock, said she believed the NZ industry had reached its limit.
“I don’t think they will be getting any bigger,” she said
“Going on the struggles that young farmers have to get farm ownership, it will definitely reduce.
“Rabobank told us 10 per cent of farms are on market and are not selling.”
Ms Neave also spoke about the increased regulation around nutrient run-off, as a result of problems with contaminated water and fish deaths.
Dairy NZ was working on developing regional plans, while farmers were taking action such as switching from flood irrigation to pivot irrigation and growing plantain in pastures.
Animal welfare regulation was also increasing, with a new bobby calf standard, a ban on tail docking and the use of motorised traction in assisted calvings and the mandatory use of pain relief when disbudding, dehorning or castrating stock.
But the tour participants also brought home important lessons of NZ success.
Mr Emmett said efficiency - not production - was king on NZ farms.
Farmers focused on decreasing the cost of production, with few farmers feeding supplements.
The widespread use of the KiwiCross cow - which makes up almost half the NZ herd - was also discussed.
Ms Byrne said the breed produced moderate-framed, healthy cows that were more reliable, had hybrid vigour and had increased longevity.
Ms Johnson said the farms they visited loved the breed.
She said the small-framed cows were highly fertile with a 12 per cent empty rate seen as disappointing.
The crossbreds were good at turning grass into milk solids.
She said she expected the crossbred cows to become more common in Australia, particularly as they were able to better adapt to changing climate.
Elspeth Field, Tinamba, also took part in the tour but was unavailable to attend the breakfast.