Opinion

‘These things are irreplaceable’: one farmer’s long view on foot-and-mouth disease

The reddish-brown cow has perfectly balanced, upward-pointing horns and she isn’t afraid to use them. In the cattle truck, she is swinging her head this way and that. It is a constant dance for the others to keep out of her way.

The driver says: “You’ve got to cut her some slack, she’s got a little calf.” But it isn’t the calf, that’s just her personality.

Sunny is my head cow, leader of the herd. She comes when I call. I cannot count the number of times that I’ve been grateful for her trust: when I had to take the herd across a slippery wooden bridge in torrential rain because the creek had flooded; when I asked them to jump a drainage ditch; when they’d gotten out of the fence and I had to call them back in.

Let me be clear, Sunny is not a pet or a glorified lawn mower. I breed cattle, and I eat them. But like many farmers, I also love my cattle. Keeping livestock is complicated. You cannot help getting to know your animals: their personalities, their likes and dislikes, their relationships. You value them for themselves, as well as their contribution to your livelihood.

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Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) doesn’t just threaten Australia’s livestock industry. It threatens animals like Sunny. It threatens the wellbeing of farmers and decades of their work.

If FMD arrives on our shores, an outbreak could be controlled through vaccination. Another possibility is eradicating the disease by killing not just affected animals, but also the perfectly healthy. Any susceptible livestock within a given radius of known infection are slaughtered: cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, even camels.

The term used is euthanasia. Stemming from the Greek for “easy death”, the word implies the prevention of suffering. Although FMD can cause severe infection, the mortality rate for cattle is less than 5%. To say euthanasia is misleading at best.

The term slaughter, hovering between meat production and a pointless loss of life, is not much better. Proponents of a slaughter-out approach highlight the billions of dollars of economic damage, in the form of lost exports, that an FMD outbreak would cause.

It cannot be denied that a financial crisis in the livestock industry would have severe social and emotional impacts for farming communities. But taking the long view, so would slaughter-out. In the UK in 2001, over 6 million animals were killed as a result of just 2,000 official cases of FMD. That is an awful lot of animals burnt in fields and on farms.

I’m not thinking just of my own cattle. I’ve culled animals before, as well as selling them for food. While I intend for Sunny to live out her life on my property, I know that animals can be lost for a myriad of reasons. But wide-scale slaughter is an entirely different thing.

Farmers spend decades building the genetics of their herd in order to breed the best possible animals. Then there are heritage breeds, like the Camden merino sheep descended from John and Elizabeth Macarthur’s flock. People dedicate their lives to seeking out and preserving heritage breeds, often saving them from the brink of extinction.

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In a slaughter-out scenario, it is not just animals and livelihoods that would be lost. It is also decades of careful management and care. It is genetic diversity that may be key to future adaptation. In the case of Australian heritage animals, like the Camden merino, it is entire breeds. These things are irreplaceable.

If I were to lose Sunny, another cow would step up as leader. But if I were to lose my whole herd – genetics, livelihood, everything – I’m not sure I would start over. Like being forever at the mercy of the weather, this is another challenge particular to farming. From the dairy farmer at Lismore who lost his whole herd in flash flooding, to those who held onto their breeders in the drought only to shoot them when they could no longer afford the feed, it’s not just one animal or one season’s income that is lost, it’s decades of work.

Should an FMD outbreak occur in Australia, the impacts will be serious. Just last year, the argument was made that the mental health and financial effects of extended Covid-19 lockdowns could be worse than the infections and deaths resulting from eased restrictions. A similar argument can be had about slaughter versus vaccination.

We can put a dollar figure on how much an FMD outbreak will cost Australia in lost meat exports; we can count the number of animals to be euthanised. It is a lot more difficult to measure mental health and community impacts. How do you compare declining exports with the trauma of culling a healthy herd, losing animals you love and your life’s work in one day? Both scenarios entail lost jobs and livelihoods.

My personal stance on slaughter versus vaccination is complicated, as is any farmer’s. I’m not a scientist or a vet, and I believe in listening to the experts. While I’m in the process of establishing a breeding herd, farming is not yet my main income. If I had a larger operation or relied on export markets, my thoughts might be different. But I would still have a relationship with my cattle.

I understand that culling animals will be necessary in the case of an FMD outbreak, no matter which approach to control is taken. Yet one can’t deny that the economy is often privileged in the formation of policy, to the detriment of other considerations.

It is hard to measure intangibles, such as genetic diversity and community health. You can’t put a dollar value on watching Sunny kick up her heels like a calf when she leads the herd to new pasture. Or on the feeling I get, calling my herd across the creek.

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