WESTERN Australia's cattle industry could be on the brink of deregulating management of Bovine Johne's disease (JD) C-strain, after an infection was confirmed on a cattle property in southern Western Australian.
An investigation by the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) found the chronic wasting disease in an eight-year-old, home-bred animal.
But information as to exactly where the disease was detected, what breed of cattle it was detected in and what properties could be at risk has not yet been released, leaving some WA cattle producers "concerned" and "mind blown".
The detection was flagged by Agriculture and Food Minister Alannah MacTiernan on Monday, who in a statement said the state government would continue to support cattle producers in protecting their herds from the disease, as WA transitioned into new arrangements.
The statement reported that Johne's disease, including sheep, cattle and bison strains, would remain a reportable disease in WA and appropriate systems maintained to meet international market certification obligations.
DPIRD chief veterinary officer Dr Michelle Rodan on Tuesday said JD C-strain would remain regulated, moving from a C1 (prohibited organism) to a C3 (declared pest) under the Biosecurity and Agricultural Management Act 2007.
Ms Rodan said this would require notification to DPIRD of the suspicion or knowledge of JD to enable certification for JD sensitive markets.
She said DPIRD was working with industry to determine the appropriate transition period.
"DPIRD has not been able to confirm the source of infection and there is reasonable probability of the source being another WA property," Ms Rodan said.
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"Therefore, it is not possible to identify the exact number of properties that are at risk.
"A number of properties will be at risk of all strains of JD.
"The sheep strain of JD is endemic in WA and detections in cattle have increased in recent years.
"For the purposes of managing property risk and market access, all strains are considered equivalent."
Ms Rodan said DPIRD was considering the request to release property details and would consider public interest, procedural fairness and consistency of approach in the determination.
"DPIRD is working closely with the WA cattle industry and will be providing information to assist producers to implement risk mitigation measures for individual business needs.
"This will include providing mechanisms to access the JD cattle vaccine and advice on the national Johne's Beef Assurance Score (J-BAS), a risk profiling tool developed nationally to support producers to manage the risk of JD."
The reduced regulations could put WA in line with all other States and Territories, which deregulated C-strain Johne's disease controls in 2016, and introduced an industry accreditation program to provide property level assurances about the disease status for Johne's disease.
According to DPIRD, a total of 12 cases of C-strain of the disease, had been detected in WA cattle between 1952 and 2019.
Until now the most recent detection occurred in 2012.
Enhanced JC C-strain import conditions were implemented for WA on July 1, 2021.
The conditions were introduced, as a result of the WA Industry Funding Scheme Management Committee (IFSMC) consultation on the management of JD C-strain within the State.
Key changes to JD cattle import conditions were:
New faecal sampling and testing requirements (not the same as the national JD in cattle guidelines) and corresponding amendments to veterinary and producer declarations.
A requirement for the supplying property to have a veterinary-approved biosecurity plan for cattle staying within WA (not imported for slaughter or export).
Removal of the requirements for the Johne's Beef Assurance Score (J-BAS) and JD Dairy Assurance Score for cattle imported to stay in WA.
In April, WA IFSMC chairman Steve Meerwald told Farm Weekly, the conditions were based on the science of managing the increased risk of incursion due to the unregulated position of the rest of Australia.
Kapari Angus breeder and WA Angus chairwoman Liz Sudlow, Northampton, said it was disappointing that Johne's disease had been found in cattle in the south of WA.
However, what she found particularly disappointing about the situation was the fact eradication had been considered "too difficult and too costly".
"I can understand that it is a complex disease in that there's such a time lag from where the animal can contract the infection to when it can be detected," Ms Sudlow said.
"This can be from four to eight years, so it is a challenging disease to trace.
"It is difficult in that the property hasn't been identified.
"It means there are reportedly up to 480 properties where potentially animals have been moved to from the original property, that aren't going to be informed."
Ms Sudlow said while she understood that it was a costly process, it was disappointing that DPIRD did not seem to want to find out the extent of the problem.
She said this potentially meant the disease would continue to spread.
"It does beg the question why there was a submission process at all," Ms Sudlow said.
"Producers would now move into a phase where they will have to learn how to live with the disease.
"It is likely that surveillance for BJD C-strain will fall away.
"It's really unfortunate that we were not further along the pathway of an early detection test."
Monterey Murray Grey and Angus stud principal Gary Buller, Karridale, said the State government and DPIRD needed to manage the outbreak and Johne's disease within WA.
He said if deregulated, the disease was at risk of blowing out to a point that could leave WA in a similar situation as Victorian dairy herds.
"Regardless of what has happened, I feel sorry for the people that have had this occur in their herd," Mr Buller said.
"I think it is important that the government and department manage it.
"DPIRD has been given all this money for biosecurity and the first hurdle they are confronted with they want to fall over and it is all too hard."
Mr Buller said the industry needed far more information than what they had been provided including exactly where the disease had come from.
He said there was uncertainty and speculation around the problem, which was not great in helping the beef industry move forward.
"Farmers would be desperate to mitigate any further issues and they could manage their herd far better if they were informed they have a potential exposure," he said.
"If they are unaware they have that exposure, little would be done to limit any further spread so how is that managing the outbreak?
"There needs to be a lot more clarity from the department, to be fair, news only broke last week but they have had years and years to think about this and work out the plan.
"I think the bottom line for the industry ought to be that we have something we can manage, if we try, and that is highly likely to deliver us to a safer place than the current DPIRD leakages look like doing."
Mr Buller said if restrictions were reduced for bringing cattle in from the east, he did not agree with it being done on a national vendor declaration (NVD).
A NVD is a document completed by the owner or person responsible for the husbandry of livestock.
It declares necessary and valuable information about the food safety status of the livestock being sold, for example: chemical treatment and exposure history.
This declaration would allow any cattle to enter WA as long as it was "between farmer and farmer".
"There's a lot of people that spent good money and have had to have a veterinary approved biosecurity plan on their farms to become a J-BAS 8 system," Mr Buller said.
"Five minutes ago, we were battling with some of the most ridiculously tough restrictions in trying to bring animals into WA.
"We couldn't bring animals in from herds in the east that were tested far more widely than what the WA herds are and for longer.
"Yet they couldn't come in, because they hadn't dotted the 'i's or crossed the 't's or because they didn't have enough cattle.
"It is just ridiculous, now all of a sudden it is going to go to a NVD, I understand and if it does that, it has gone from one extreme to another.
"DPIRD needs to roll up their sleeves and actually try to control this, not throw an exaggerated cost in the air and give up at the same time."
Mr Buller said it could be possible to have protected regions in WA, similar to New South Wales, where farmers have Beef Only herds.
According to Cattle Council Australia, the Beef Only classification helps assure cattle buyers of the very low risk of Johne's Disease in beef herds that have had little or no contact with dairy cattle.
Cattle for sale qualify as Beef Only if the owner or manager declares on the National Cattle Health Statement that the cattle comply with all of the following criteria:
The cattle do not include animals that have been part of a herd classified as infected (IN), suspect (SU) or restricted (RD), according to the National Johne's Disease Standard Definitions, Rules & Guidelines for Cattle.
The cattle are from a beef herd that has not grazed with dairy cattle, or first generation dairy-cross cattle, at any time during the previous five years, unless those dairy cattle were from a herd enrolled in the Australian Johne's Disease Market Assurance Program for Cattle (CattleMAP).
The cattle are from a beef herd that has not, at any time in the past, grazed on land that had been grazed by adult dairy cattle (two years old or older) during the 12 months before the arrival of the beef herd, unless those dairy cattle were part of a CattleMAP herd.
If introduced into the herd or onto the property(s), the cattle are from herds that are of the same Beef Only or higher status for BJD (BCTAS-Beef Cattle Trade Assurance Scheme, MN1, MN2, MN3), and came with a Cattle Health Statement or BJD vendor declaration.
The cattle are identified under the National Livestock Identification Scheme (NLIS).
Mr Buller said introducing protected regions in WA could give an assurance that there was no dairy cattle influence or co-grazed cattle.
"They are the ways they have tried to mitigate the spread of the disease in the east and it appears to be working for them," he said.
"But there are herds over there that are tested far more widely than anyone in WA has and they have come up with clean test results.
"To have had that regime in place and then to suddenly go to a deregulated system where you just run on an NVD, farmer to farmer is just absurd, given we have one herd with a confirmed case it is bloody absurd."
Also disheartened by the outbreak of Johne's disease in WA, was Quicksilver Charolais and Droughtmaster stud principal Doug Giles, Newdegate.
Mr Giles said his disappointment was particularly due to the pressure, which had been put on the east coast to make cattle eligible to enter WA.
"We have put the east coast through the ringer and now all of a sudden we have said 'Oh well, we have got it, let's drop everything'," Mr Giles said.
"It is really unfair for those people that have spent the money to say they are eligible to come to WA.
"It is unfair and premature to just throw your hands in the air."
As of Tuesday afternoon, WA breeders had not been provided with any further information of the outbreak including where it had been detected and what breed it had been detected in.
Mr Giles believed DPIRD had not thought hard enough about the repercussions of keeping information confidential.
He said he was afraid for WA breeders and more information needed to be provided to stop speculation.
"Everyone is looking over the fence right now saying, 'It was you, it was you, it was you'," Mr Giles said.
"The person who has this animal probably isn't in a very good head space right now and I think as an industry we should get around this person and get the right people to help them out.
"Those people that have bought animals, they need to be contacted and they need to know that they potentially are one of those properties.
"I think it goes back to DPIRD and the person who has it, it has to go back to them and they have to announce where it is, what breed it is, so people can put into play where they are.
"At the moment the individual primary producers are going to spend a lot of money testing their herds and making sure they are right and it might not even be their breed or they might not even have anything to do with it."
Mr Giles said the government had "done a backflip and then another backflip" without hesitation in the management of Johne's disease.
By doing so, he said they were "treating the WA beef industry like mushrooms".
"In July this year, DPIRD made it more difficult to bring cattle across the border, but 12 to 18 months prior they wanted to leave it open," he said.
"You have to wonder how long they have been sitting on this information and you also have to wonder what is driving them not giving us information.
"With a disease outbreak they have managed to control and keep out of WA, you would think they'd find a way to manage it instead of throwing their hands in the air and saying 'Well it is here, catch ya later'."
Dale Park, Kilandra Pastoral Co, said it was tricky knowing where the industry would go from here.
Mr Park said it was not a total surprise that WA had a confirmed detection of Johne's disease, given the Eastern States "had really let it run".
His concern was the impact that the outbreak would have on some export markets including China and Indonesia.
"There are certainly countries around that think they haven't got it, China and Indonesia being two of them and that is where we sell a lot of cattle," Mr Park said.
"So it is a worry."
Mr Park said what was most concerning and mind-blowing was the fact virtually no information had been released on the matter.
"The only person that knows they have it is the person with the positive test," he said.
"The test only tells you that you didn't have it five years ago.
"You manage it yourself, well that's fine but if you don't know and you can't see it, it is just crazy."
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