Light, finally, at end of the tunnel

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By Toni Williams

Lynne and Duncan Barr are happy it’s spring.

There are calves to feed and work to be done on their dairy farm at Ealing, in Mid Canterbury.

They say it’s nice to be able to go about the business of farming again and be back in control after a particularly tough, and emotional year.

It began in late-April 2018 when they identified potential Mycoplasma bovis (Mbovis) trace animals on their Brogdens Road run-off block at Lowcliffe.

The block was one of three properties with stock they farmed.

The other two were their home dairy farm at Old Main South Road, Ealing, milking around 675 cows, and a lease block on Coldstream Road.

Mbovis was making itself widely-known nationwide since being found in July 2017, and the Barrs had bought calves in 2017, from a farm which they found out had tested Mbovis positive.

They went into voluntary lock down of their run-off block where the calves had been kept.

Then came the nationwide call for “phased eradication of Mbovis from the national herd”.

By mid-May they had heard from Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) regarding “three trace animals of interest” from an Mbovis positive farm from within Mid Canterbury. It was a different property to that of initial concern.

It was the start of months of blood testing and nasal swabs of stock.

The days and months that followed, Lynne and Duncan were battered by the process.

On June 25 the Barrs were served with a Notice of Direction (NOD); the appointment of an Incident Control Point (ICP) field staffer did not help.

The NOD included the Brogdens Road property (82 hectares), the dairy farm at Old Main South Road (171 hectares) and the lease block (42 hectares).

“The dairy farm was always clear,” Duncan says, but the stress of the unknown put added pressure on dairy farm staff who were part of the collateral damage.

It’s been a long, drawn-out period that has affected them both, but in different ways.

Dealing with Mbovis

Duncan – forced to battle bureaucracy and, at times, what he called nonsensical madness – did it the only way he knew how.

He questioned the process, and he wrote about it so he could understand it.

Often he got conflicting messages, seemingly answered on the fly, without substance. The frustration consumed him.

Lynne just kept going, supporting Duncan, trying to lift his spirit and keep the home fires burning.

Confusion reigns

It was “the chopping and changing of what they want” and just turning up with significantly different plans to what I was informed about,” which irritated Duncan most in the early days.

And now it’s the length of time to trace animals to prevent reinfection happening nationwide and the lack of communication.

On September 7, after months of testing, the Barrs had their NOD revoked.

But by October 15, it was reinstated due to results from round three testing with “three animals of interest”.

Duncan says this was the “freight train moment”. It started to bear down on him.

And so it continued; further testing.

The culmination of the process was the culling of 450 young animals in January this year.

It was done in batches, with some heading for pet food and the remainder to Alliance.

The animals were made up of calves (140), two-year heifers (130) and beefies (180); in total young stock worth around half a million dollars, with an additional compensation claim for $150,000 of operational costs such as buying feed, hiring equipment or making baleage.

Depopulation

On January 16 the ” first load of calves gone, bloody distressing seeing a year’s genetics go to dog food,” Duncan wrote.

By January 30 the final lot of planned calves were sent for slaughter to pet food.

The remainder were due to go to Alliance, but there was a minimum weight requirement.

It was the first he’d heard of it, three days out from depopulation.

“My ICP had been at the weigh session and seen the weights of all these animals…why was this issue not raised earlier?”

“A major issue with this delay is actually emotional distress, you go through all this rigmarole (testing, tagging, setting the farm up for no stock) and just when you think you are there MPI drop something else on you!”

The delay caused flow-on effects with an additional two weeks of grazing costs and a delay in getting the land ready for sale.

“Again just simple open communication and all this could have been avoided.”

Two weeks later, they were finally gone; some to Alliance others to pet food.

Counselling conundrum

The cull was the final straw for Duncan.

“That’s what really did my head in.”

The “mental anguish” right up to depopulation with “your brain going all day and all night, (receiving) no information”.

“Nothing has changed in 12 months…mental anguish is still going on,” he says.

He took up the offer of three counselling sessions.

“I wanted to know my thought processes were clear.”

MPI will continue to pay for sessions after the initial three, but want to know who is accessing them, Duncan says.

He questions the ethics of this and, by withholding payments to counsellors, believes the counsellors have become collateral damage too.

Support on hand

At the beginning support for farmers like the Barrs, was non-existent.

But Rural Support Trust (RST) Mid Canterbury knew farmers in the district were suffering.

In late August, Angela Cushnie made contact. She had been appointed as RST Mid Canterbury welfare co-ordinator for Mbovis response.

When she arrived, Duncan says his “hackles” were already up dealing with ministry staff who did not understand farming.

She was the first person to let them know “we were not the only ones with the problem”.

It was like a weight was lifted, and one of the reasons Duncan, along with Angela and fellow South Canterbury RST’s Sarah Barr (no relation) and others, set up the Mbovis Affected Farmers Facebook page.

“I put myself out there for it to help my own case but also the systemic failure.”

Soldiering on

Lynne was especially grateful for the support of those from RST Mid Canterbury who organised a Mbovis support network event, just for farming women.

It was a day off the farm, talking to other women going through the same process.

And Duncan knows why he took the process to heart so badly.

“It’s 24/7, and so encompassing. It’s such an unjust process,” he says.

“They say they want to work with you but it’s an endless pit with no information forthcoming.

“Once depopulation happens it’s almost like getting your life back, and for a time it helped.

“It’s horrible to go through,” Duncan says.

Just last week they received their latest compensation payment, five months after it was submitted.

But for now the couple are looking forward to the season and happier times.