Farm Ireland

Wednesday 23 May 2018

Analysis: It's time farming leaders stepped up to plate on Johne's disease

Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

Cork vet Bill Cashman has been singing from the rooftops about many of the biosecurity risks that have come to pass over the last few decades, and Johne's is one of them.

There is a body of scientific studies pointing to a link between Johne's and a similar disease that affects humans called Crohn's.

He has strong views on the dairy industry's approach to Johne's disease, which is estimated to be present in one in five dairy and beef herds in the country.

I like to think of Bill as the canary in the mine that is the dairy sector. Some people find canaries very irritating. I beg to differ.

Despite the news in recent weeks that a new national programme has been launched to tackle Johne's, Mr Cashman believes the effort is delivering an assurance scheme that gives marketeers something to present on global markets when they are selling Irish products.

That's strong stuff from a man who has spent the best part of a decade being part of the technical working group that was tasked to come up with a way to tackle Johne's. In other words, this man has tried hard to be part of the solution.

"There is only room for 1,800 dairy herds in this programme, which is barely 10pc of the total in the dairy industry," he told me.

"There's no way you can claim that it's a national programme. The hope is to get up to 4,000 herds involved over the next five years, but in the meantime, Johne's disease is working away and spreading 24 hours a day."

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There are two main stumbling blocks to making this scheme more ambitious.

The first is money. The umbrella group representing Irish dairy co-ops, ICOS, is providing €600,000 towards the annual cost. The Department of Agriculture is coughing up another €500,000.

Teagasc's economic unit estimates that it would cost somewhere between €13-15m a year to roll out a scheme that catered for all dairy herds. In other words, the amount of money on the table is ridiculously insufficient.

The second blockage is the political. Farm organisations have traditionally been very negative towards the implementation of disease control programmes. The BVD scheme was a case in point, where the IFA, ICMSA and ICSA all took pot-shots at the scheme over what they perceived to be the hardship it caused farmers.

To me this is akin to Trump-tactic politics where you appeal to the lowest common denominator regardless of the big picture.

It is a sure-fire way of maximising votes while at the same time jettisoning real leadership. This kind of populist politics has disastrous long-term consequences for those that are being led.

The facts are that the elimination of diseases like BVD or Johne's puts more money in a farmer's pocket.

Sure, if you don't plan to be part of the industry in 10 years' time, there's no big incentive to take the short-term pain for the long-term gains.

But the eradication of BVD will leave dairy farmers at least €100m a year better off through better thrive in their stock.

Over 90pc of farmers that have participated in Johne's pilot programmes have seen similar benefits in terms of improvements in calf health and a significant reduction in antibiotic use on farm.

Why don't we have real farming leaders stepping up to champion this approach? Better still, why don't we have any of the highly paid executives in charge of our many dairy processors driving this national issue?

The notion that they could only justify €600k to safeguard the future of the multi-billion euro business that they are charged with managing is, in my opinion, unforgivable.

What are they waiting for? We all remember the impact of the BSE-scare that rocked the agriculture sector for years. In the meantime, the stigma surrounding Johne's in herds continues.

Thousands of farmers are knowingly or unknowingly struggling to cope, with animal performance below par.

This isn't confined to the poorest performers. Some dairy herds have struggled to contain the disease for over 20 years.

But we don't hear much about it.

Nobody wants to admit that their cows are infected. Better just to muddle our way through it.

Maybe one way to sidestep all this nonsense is to reward farmers that take the initiative to prove that their herds are Johne's-free.

We are forever castigating the processing industry for not paying premium prices for a premium product.

Instead, the dairy industry finds itself in a race to the bottom where bottom-feeders churn massive volumes of undifferentiated powders and fats for bargain basement prices.

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Even with large chunks of our milk pool being targeted directly at the highest value products in the entire dairy portfolio - the infant milk formula sector - Irish farmers are still getting a price that is lower than their European colleagues and often similar to what Kiwi farmers pocket.

Surely a litre of guaranteed Johne's-free milk is worth a premium in any market, but especially in the risk-phobic infant milk sector?

That premium could be used to subsidise the costs that farmers would incur to implement a Johne's control programme.

This would be the basis of a real national control programme, not some kind of marketing wishful thinking.

Imagine if Ireland got the head-start on the rest of the global competition by establishing a world first of Johne's-free milk. Now that would be something for our dairy marketeers to shout about.

Nobody is saying that it will be easy - Johne's has proved to be a tricky one to nail. And farmers won't be able to do it alone, but it can be done.

However, it will take real leadership, which will have to come from farmers themselves.

It's time for the silent majority to step up... before it's too late.

Indo Farming