Mycoplasma bovis - affected farmers seek legal help as eradication tops $227.5M.

A restricted place notice on the roadside of a Mycoplasma bovis infected farm .

A restricted place notice on the roadside of a Mycoplasma bovis infected farm .

Farmers caught in a protracted process dealing with cattle disease Mycoplasma bovis and facing compensation delays are seeking legal help. 

To date, $227.5 million has been spent by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) on disease eradication, made up of $154.1m of operational costs and $73.4m on compensation to farmers. 

Law firm Tavendale and Partners, which has offices in Ashburton and Christchurch, has established a dedicated team to deal with the more difficult cases where progress has stalled between M. bovis-affected farmers and the ministry. The M. bovis team is headed by Tavendale partners Kirsten Todd and Alana Crampton. 

Tavendale and Partners lawyer Kirsten Todd says the biggest human welfare issues arise where farmers have been stuck under a cloud of uncertainty for a long time. "They feel like they have no control."

Tavendale and Partners lawyer Kirsten Todd says the biggest human welfare issues arise where farmers have been stuck under a cloud of uncertainty for a long time. "They feel like they have no control."

Todd said its cases "have been stuck in the too hard basket, where mistakes have been made and farmers have been in the system for more than 18 months since being identified as a property of interest.

"The biggest human welfare issues arise where farmers have been stuck under a cloud of uncertainty for a long time. They feel like they have no control. 

"The best thing MPI can do is show empathy, speed up their processes, show consistency in their approach and people and give farmers certainty," Todd said.  

The law firm had assisted about 35 M. bovis-affected farmers since the disease was identified in New Zealand almost two years ago, not all existing clients.    

"Sometimes farmers are distraught and stressed and being able to step in and communicate with MPI on their behalf can assist," Todd said.   

Since it was first detected in July 2017, M. bovis has been confirmed on 171 farms, of which 128 have been cleared, with 101,000 animals culled.  

Earlier in the eradication response, issues tended to be around animal welfare and logistics for livestock under movement restrictions, Todd said. "Getting feed and water to stock, moving stock to grazing and being able to milk them." 

The bottleneck had now shifted to compensation. 

Both MPI and AsureQuality, which handled auditing and inspection, appeared to have a high turnover of staff dealing with the response.

"You might be dealing with someone, given them your information and the next week you have to deal with someone new and you have to start again. This delays things."

A lack of consistency in livestock valuations was also an issue. Sometimes MPI applied the livestock valuation from its contracted provider, or the independent valuation provided by the farmer, or a mix of the two.

"We have had like-for-like claims for livestock valuations treated completely differently by MPI, even from the same farm. As we see multiple claims we see a difference in approach and no clear reason for this," Todd said.  

Crampton said this provided no certainty for farmers. "Farmers have had their livestock valuation applied one way for a herd and four months later for another herd it is treated totally differently." 

Tavendale and Partners lawyer Alana Crampton says that low-risk farmers, put under surveillance by MPI, are not entitled to compensation so they should seek legal advice.

Tavendale and Partners lawyer Alana Crampton says that low-risk farmers, put under surveillance by MPI, are not entitled to compensation so they should seek legal advice.

While MPI had a model to calculate milk production losses on dairy farms, beef farms were more complex.  

"Verifying the loss is challenging."   

Farmers had a legislative time limit of 12 months to make a claim for a verifiable loss. 

As low-risk farmers, put under surveillance by MPI were not entitled to compensation, the law firm recommended that they seek legal advice. Eligibility for compensation only applied once farmers were put under notice of direction or restricted place movement controls.  

A total of 512 properties are under active surveillance. Of these 229 were in Canterbury, including 62 in Mid-Canterbury, followed by 90 in Otago and 70 in Southland. 

"Clients last year dried off their cows early as they were undergoing testing and needed to prepare if they were found to have M. bovis. As they were not under a notice of direction or movement controls they cannot claim compensation for loss of milk production," Crampton said. 

No farmers were "better off" after compensation, as overdraft or bridging costs and additional legal and accountant expenses were not covered, Todd said. This did not include time dealing with the response.  

"We know there are losses that aren't covered.

"For example, a farmer that has to repopulate their herd has received some compensation from MPI and the meat price. If the cows they are buying to restock are dearer, the farmer has to cover that cost until MPI reimburses them with a top-up.  

"We have had clients that waited six months for compensation for loss of milk production. This is normally cashflow in the bank reducing their overdraft and interest costs," Todd said.