MOUNT GAMBIER sheep producers Neville and Jill McKenna are considering their legal options after suffering more than five years in flock and property quarantine under South Australia’s OJD control program.
The former Victorian couple are investigating initiating a class action with other quarantined SA producers because of the loss of income and effect on property and flock values as a result of the program.
While other states have largely de-regulated the disease’s management, PIRSA has put several SA flocks and properties under quarantine, restricting the sale of breeding stock within the state.
Under the SA OJD control program, state authorities have treated the entire state as a regional biosecurity area and tried to monitor and regulate the disease’s introduction and spread.
OJD program costing McKennas $30,000-$60,000 in lost sales
In 1994, the McKennas bought the 635-hectare property Donegal at Dismal Swamp, about 20km north of Mount Gambier in SA’s south east.
OJD was found in one of the McKenna’s sheep in a consignment of 203 in late 2012 from an abattoir test. Mr McKenna initially refused to sign PIRSA’s quarantine order because he and his wife were nearing retiring age and were concerned about the impact on their property’s value, but eventually had to in order to receive a Gudair vaccine subsidy. However, OJD vaccine subsidies were cut back in South Australia last year, with SA producers with new detections or their at-risk neighbours and trace property owners, to receive a 50pc Gudair vaccination subsidy for the first year only.
All abattoir tests of McKenna sheep since 2012 have been negative for OJD, but another round of faecal testing will have to be done after this year for the fully vaccinated flock to be eligible to have the quarantine lifted, Mr McKenna said.
The McKennas believe the SA OJD control program’s quarantine policy has cost them $30,000-$60,000 in lost ewe lamb sales annually, cutting their annual farm income by about 10 percent.
“(SA OJD Control Program manager) Peter Nosworthy said you can sell as many (ewes) as you like into Victoria, but you are not to sell any into South Australia – and if anybody buys them they will be straight away into quarantine.
“It changed our operation … we were getting a $30-$40 premium for our ewe lambs over slaughter price, but the quarantine has limited our market,” he said.
”Even Victorians will say we’ll just buy them somewhere else.”
OJD program has stressed producers
In a 2015 SA OJD survey, the McKennas said the program had put significant financial and emotional stress on the family and has also affected their cattle sales.
The McKenna’s find it hard to believe that a March 2015 one-page outcomes report on the survey, signed by then SA Sheep Advisory Group chair Leonie Mills and SA OJD Committee Peter Altschwager, claimed that “almost all” of the survey respondents “remained supportive of the SA OJD Control Program; however, it was clear from the survey that some areas require improvement.”
The outcomes report listed five main areas of concern that had been addressed with changes in program delivery; including improved ‘first contact’ communication with producers, clear demonstration of disease control options, timely communication of test results, timely confirmation and communication of test results and follow-up support for affected producers.
The McKennas believe SA’s OJD program should have offered emotional counselling and extension support to quarantined producers. However, apart from visits by Mr Nosworthy and PIRSA veterinarian Riley Fleming, to train them in Gudair vaccine use, and the initial vaccine subsidy, the McKennas have not any personal support from authorities, Mr McKenna said.
Several months after completing an OJD survey in 2015 on which he requested “one-on-one” contact with PIRSA, Mr McKenna received a call from Mr Altschwager, and he had a visit from Mr Nosworthy a few days later to discuss lifting the quarantine on the property’s flock. Apart from these contacts, Mr McKenna said they had “never been contacted by anyone to see how we’re going or what we are doing, to see what we are doing to control the disease.”
“It’s been a stressful time; in October 2014, I had a stroke.”
SA OJD report should have been released to producers
Although a recent report by then Professor Kym Abbott commissioned by PIRSA has concluded that OJD prevalence in south-east SA is significantly underestimated and that would probably increase in high rainfall areas even if regulatory controls continue, the McKennas are concerned that the SA authorities and the SA Sheep Advisory Group want to maintain the current OJD regulations.
Control of the disease in South Australia has been attempted through stopping the entry of OJD-infected sheep, the quarantining of infected flocks and properties via Property Disease Management Plans, the SheepMAP program for stud breeders, abattoir surveillance, Gudair vaccine subsidies, on-farm monitoring by veterinarians and producers, and producer education.
However in his report, Professor Kym Abbott said the limited penetration and insensitivity of abattoir surveillance lead to the conclusion that the prevalence of OJD in the south-east region is significantly under-estimated.
Professor Abbott’s principle recommendation is for a de-regulation of OJD in SA and a move towards individual responsibility for biosecurity. The report was completed in 2016, but never released to sheep producers generally until Sheep Central published it this month. Mr McKenna believes all SA producers should have been able to read the report to decide what to do about OJD control and management in the state.
“One way of the other we as taxpayers or levy payers have paid for it – end of story.”
Mr McKenna believes the SA OJD program has driven the disease underground, with producers discouraged from testing their flock because of PIRSA’s quarantine policy.
He agrees with Professor’s Abbott’s recommendation to deregulate the disease in South Australia and believes all producers should vaccinate against OJD.
“I haven’t spoken to any farmer that would disagree with that, although there are still some that don’t vaccinate.”
Mr McKenna also believes South Australian sheep producers should be able to vote on how OJD should be managed in the state, but only after a campaign to inform them about the disease and the current control program’s impact on income and property values.
“The only thing I can see wrong with that is that most producers you talk to know very little about OJD, except that they don’t want to get it, they are scared of getting it, so they haven’t really done their homework on it.
“They are frightened of quarantine, they are frightened of the consequences,” he said.