Rich-lister’s farm has cow disease
A South Canterbury farming couple are ‘‘devastated’’ after the first cases in New Zealand of the incurable disease Mycoplasma bovis were found in their cows.
Dairy farmer Aad van Leeuwen, who with his wife Wilma owns what has been described as the world’s largest robotic dairy barn, said he was resigned to having the animals put down.
The identity of the property where the disease was found this week has been the subject of intense speculation after 150 cattle were infected.
Pressure has been mounting within the farming community for the cows to be put down so the disease does not spread.
The highly contagious disease is commonly found throughout the world, but this is the first recorded case in New Zealand. Federated Farmers vice-president Andrew Hoggard said there was ‘‘no recovery, no cure’’.
The van Leeuwens’ dairy barn, inland from the Makikihi township about 35 kilometres south of Timaru, is about the size of two rugby fields. They outlaid $22 million, which included the price of the farm the barn is built on. The construction of the barn, purchase and installation of the robotic milking machines, cost about $9m.
They also have a number of satellite farms in the region. It was on one of these that the disease was found. At today’s values, the cows would be worth about $300,000, but insurance will not cover the loss, including the lost production.
The van Leeuwens made their debut on the NBR rich list in 2015 with an estimated $65 million, and their wealth has remained stable at $60m for the past two years, according to the list.
Van Leeuwen said he had wanted to kill the animals as soon as they were diagnosed, but had been advised not to. It was in the interests of the industry to contain the disease.
‘‘We said from day one that we wanted to do something about it but we’ve been stopped by MPI and the meat industry who want to sort out first whether it’s safe to kill them. The embargo’s been lifted so they’ll go off soon.’’
He said it would be difficult to trace how the disease arrived. He believes it has been in New Zealand for some time but has only now been identified.
He would not be drawn on the pathway it arrived – ’’we simply don’t know’’ .
Mycoplasma bovis did not infect humans and presented no food safety risk, the Ministry for Primary Industry said. There was no concern about consuming milk and milk products.
The disease could infect both calves and cows, but not other animals. It caused pneumonia, udder infection (mastitis), abortion, arthritis, tendinitis, middle-ear infection and endometriosis, and was potentially fatal to the animal.
Prime Minister Bill English has indicated a likely way it came into the country was through imported semen and embryos.
Australian University professor John House said it would have either come in through semen and embryo imports, or bringing in contaminated equipment. The disease survives freezing.
The van Leeuwens did not themselves import semen or embryos but went through the ‘‘normal channels like anyone else’’. Livestock genetics companies import semen and embryos to improve dairy herds.
The van Leeuwens’ massive dairy shed, the largest robotic barn in the world, can house up to 1500 cows. Inset: Wilma and Aad van Leeuwen.