OJD group thinks global, acts local

Corrina RidgwayThe West Australian

Three years of planning has resulted in the Association for Sheep Husbandry, Excellence, Evaluation and Production launching its own regional biosecurity initiative.

The ASHEEP biosecurity group focuses on protecting flocks from the occurrence of ovine Johne's disease in the Esperance-East Ravensthorpe region.

A founder and committee member of ASHEEP, sheep producer Bob Reed believes the positives will include healthy animals, economic benefits and possible market advantages accessing higher value interstate trade.

The ASHEEP initiative was launched as the National OJD Working Group announced its new national guidelines on July 1.

The guidelines have not been adopted as regulatory, with many States refusing the imposition. Instead, farm groups are encouraged to regulate independently, using the national guidelines as a basis.

ASHEEP has based its guidelines on two years of testing carried out to determine the prevalence and risk of OJD in the region.

"Animal Health Australia supplied a qualified tester at the local works after ASHEEP expressed concern," Mr Reed said.

"From 2011 to 2012, an abattoir surveillance test was carried out over the main mutton run from September to December."

The survey was restricted to adult mutton sheep because OJD will not show in lambs. A total of 118 property identification codes were put through survey in 2011 and 100 the following season.

'The total was three positive identifications of OJD," Bob said.

"From statistical alignments we formed the view that it was relatively rare and all positive results were traced to imported sheep."

The native self-replacing flocks, although clean, were under threat.

ASHEEP then commenced on drafting a regional biosecurity group document and rules. "We wanted to ensure it was as user-friendly as possible and still strong enough to work," Mr Reed said.

ASHEEP will self-regulate through key areas.

"An independent audit plus continuing abattoir surveillance testing will be necessary for each member once a season. It is a condition of the group to keep the flock health status up to date," Mr Reed said.

"You must also make those health tests available to buyers."

Members will be careful of which animals are imported and where the imported flocks are situated on farm in relation to native flocks.

The revamped AHA sheep health statement must be requested from sellers and will be supplied to all buyers.

Agistment was identified as another risk area.

"We will be suggesting research into agistment properties and if there is a grey background, recommend only agisting of those animals that will not be returning home," Mr Reed said.

If any member returns positive OJD results they will be allowed to stay in the ASHEEP group under a different status. "We won't be kicking them out," Mr Reed said.

"We will work on assisting them with information."

Through Meat and Livestock Australia assistance and research personnel, the group will be carrying out on-farm research into on-property eradication of OJD.

The primary benefit, according to Mr Reed, will be the protection of breeding stock.

The group aims to avoid the nuisance of vaccinating and prolonged OJD cleanup after infection.

"Vaccine is a good way to commercially live with the disease but not a good way to clean up," Mr Reed said. "We don't want that."

Market assurance and the possibility of re-accessing currently closed avenues are also promising.

The lucrative South Australian ewe and ewe hogget trade was closed to WA more than two years ago over biosecurity issues.

"We should be able to give sufficient assurance to get back into SA," Mr Reed said.

"It won't be easy but I think in 12 months we will make the first steps.

"It is a much stronger market there with prices around $130 per head. The difference has been about $50 per head."

If trade recommenced, further spin off could help the WA market price to rise as buyers rallied to secure local stock. "There is also potential for a regional branding long term for further market benefits," Mr Reed said.

Negating the cost of vaccine use as a preventative or a treatment is also a boon. "Vaccine cost is $2.50 per head. If you don't have to use it due to clean flocks, over 2000 sheep that's a $5000 save," Mr Reed said.

The group is aiming for 15 members in the first year, expanding to 40 members by the third season.

"It's about providing a local service to local people and awakening producers to the risk of OJD. The biggest issue is complacency in the region," Mr Reed said.

ASHEEP is taking on new members. Membership is open to any sheep producer in the Esperance region.

"There is no fee for the next two seasons and testing will be free while we get support from AHA and MLA," Mr Reed said.

"The scheme will then run itself financially, so it's beneficial to join early."

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