DISGRACEFUL RESULT: Col Brooks, president of the Combined Tweed Rural Industries Association, is critical of the DPIs head-in
DISGRACEFUL RESULT: Col Brooks, president of the Combined Tweed Rural Industries Association, is critical of the DPIs head-in

Farmers ticked off over cattle deaths

TICK fever is back on the Northern Rivers and in its wake cattle producers are calling for greater bio-security.

But the Department of Primary Industry's chief veterinarian says tighter controls on cross-border cattle movement to prevent further outbreaks are not worth the extra cost.

Already $4m is spent every year controlling cattle ticks in our region, which regularly sees 60 to 80 outbreaks in a typical season.

This year already there have been around 40 reported infestations of cattle ticks in the Northern Rivers.

But the discovery of deadly tick fever, a blood parasite carried by cattle ticks, has galvanised producers' concerns that border control of imported Queensland cattle is not working.

That view is strongly denied by DPI staff.

Since 2005 a total of 37 animals have died from tick fever, including those in this latest outbreak.

Over the weekend a third animal died on an Alstonville property, and DPI vets are now tracing the extent of the outbreak.

They believe the latest outbreak of tick fever originated from a hobby farm at Burringbar, with a likely link to a mob of Dexter cattle imported from tick-infested Queensland.

While the import process was legal and thoroughly checked, there is some concern that the Queensland cattle, inoculated with a live blood vaccine, were somehow able to spread the disease to neighbouring animals through cattle ticks.

In that case heifers grazing the de-stocked hobby farm, through a hole in a fence, may have picked up the disease as easily as picking up a tick in the long grass.

Burringbar farmers Robert and Sue Harnett now face having ot write off the equivalent of a year's income as a result of losing 12 pure-bred dairy heifers, many of them in calf.

Before the outbreak the Burringbar Dexter herd was sold to an Alstonville property and from there on-sold to six other farms. There is some concern that goats off-loaded with the Dexter cattle may also pose a threat.

As a result of this latest outbreak, Member for Lismore Thomas George is calling for a meeting between producers and DPI officials to upgrade bio-security in our region.

"There seems to be a lot of secrecy over this issue," he said.

:North Coast cattle producers have been telling me they've got concerns with modern tick control and grave concerns over the use of vaccines."

Mr George and fellow National Party State MPs Steve Cansdell, Don Page and Geoff Provest raised the alarm of potential tick fever outbreak about the same time that the first of the Harnett's heifers was dying of tick fever.

The MPs had responded to local producers' concerns that a mob of infected Queensland cattle had introduced the fever to previously clean New Caledonia.

Those cattle had been exported after being treated with a live blood vaccine, and yet that treatment is administered to more than 800,000 Queensland cattle every year, and has been in use for the past 30 years, with no documented link to it triggering tick fever.

As a result the New Caledonia outbreak is still under investigation.

Col Brooks, president of the Combined Tweed Rural Industries Association, accused the DPI of taking a head-in-the-sand approach to the tick fever issue. He believes every animal destined to be sold over the border into NSW be treated for the blood parasite with a dose of Imizol.

"The result for the Harnetts, a loss of three year's milk production that would have come from those 12 heifers, is disgraceful when it doesn't have to be this way," he said.

A mis-diagnosis on the first heifer to die at the Harnett's farm, not in itself unusual, and a delay in getting the right result thanks to DPI offices being closed for the Easter long weekend, only compounded the problem by delaying information reaching to the public.

But NSW DPI chief vet Bruce Christie says controls in place at the NSW Queensland border are working well, and the historical emphasis on controlling the cattle tick population in the Northern Rivers will remain.

Already $4 million every year is spent on controlling cattle ticks.

"We need to look at a balanced approach," he said.

"With extreme regulation we could eradicate tick fever in NSW but it would come at quite a severe cost.

Instead we are looking at better and cheaper technologies, like electronic surveillance at border crossings."

That technology works 24-7, rain or shine, and its collected images are readily used as evidence in court, when cattle are illegally carried over the border.

But landholders are required to assist this program by remaining vigilant for any outbreak of cattle ticks on their property.

That vigilance comes at a cost, considering affected properties are quarantined for up to 13 months.

But without a quick response to new tick outbreaks more than 100 years of eradication effort could be compromised and the spread of tick fever could spiral.

"We can inspect only so many properties," said Mr Christie. "If people see ticks we need to know about it."

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