How the New Zealand Government's going on its controversial promise to eradicate Mycoplasma bovis

The pledge was made two years ago to do what no other country has managed before by eradicating Mycoplasma bovis (M bovis). 

It was a controversial and costly decision, but has it paid off?

Northland farmer Des Sands, whose farm is still under quarantine, says it's been a waste of time and a waste of money.

The restricted signs remain in place and the clean-up teams are out in force, because it was only just last Wednesday that the last of the Sands' cattle were sent to slaughter.

"It does bug you, of course it does; all the neighbours are worried about the 'oh the Sands' have Mycoplasma bovis'," he said.

Across the country, many farms still have no stock. Farmers are still hurting, and it's been two years since Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Minister of Agriculture Damien O'Connor said New Zealand "just had this one shot" to eradicate the disease.

That one shot has been far from quick and painless - it's been drawn-out and excruciating.

"They don't trust farmers at all, there's obviously no trust," he said.

A single bull tested positive for M bovis on the Sands' farm in Waipu in late 2019. Since then, more than 1100 of their stock have been culled.

"We tried to explain to them that the cattle won't mingle with other cattle, can't cross the road," Gary Sands told Newshub. "They didn't come and look at the farm, it was like they didn't care."

But while it may be slow, there is progress. The disease is shrinking - the estimated dissemination rate sits at 0.4, and was over 2 when the outbreak began.

And with COVID-19 now crippling the economy, O'Connor says the $880 million decision to eradicate M bovis and protect the industry will prove invaluable. 

"Thus far we are on track to eradicate the disease. It was a hard call, we took the call and we've made good progress," he said.

So far, 232 properties have now been cleared of M bovis, while 17 are still considered active and under quarantine. And 154,788 cattle have been culled. 

Douglas Conn has only just been given the all-clear after his farm was placed under a long six months of notice while they waited for test results. 

"They always ask 'how's your stress? How are you coping with this?'" he said.

"Normally I sleep very well, and that night I said 'I didn't sleep very well' and he said 'you've got another three weeks, just three more weeks'."

Dairy NZ, Beef and Lamb and the Government all agree processes have improved, but say they could still move faster.

"This is a programme that has not been attempted by any country around the world - we're learning as we go," O'Connor said.

And those lessons have been called on earlier than anyone ever predicted - from bovis to COVID.

Auckland University professor of physics Shaun Hendy, who has been involved with the modelling for both, says lessons particularly around contact-tracing cattle have been crucial.

"M bovis is endemic around the world - it's something we're always going to have to keep an eye out for, and it's similar for COVID-19," he said. "We can never let our guard down, and we're going to have to be really good at catching it at the border."

Eliminating M bovis could take another 18 months - the Government is taking two big shots at two big infections and hoping to hit the bullseye on both.