Play your part in strengthening Australian agriculture in the north

Jess Rummery, Manager Biosecurity and Extension, Northern Australia

Biosecurity is not just about managing endemic disease and responding to exotic disease; it is also about actively participating in targeted disease surveillance programs as a way to demonstrate to our livestock markets that we are free from diseases of interest.

Surveillance underpins our trade in livestock and livestock products to our international and domestic (interstate) trading partners. Yet, even though it is vitally important, it is difficult to get producers to contribute samples to these surveillance programs. When discussing this with producers, I often get asked the ‘what if’ question… what if something is detected? What happens if disease is found on my property?

This is a fair question and I will explore this further in this article.

Firstly, I think it is important to consider the other side of this question, what if you don’t investigate and the disease is actually on your property?

If an exotic disease does enter the country it will be detected – it is a simply a matter of when. If it is detected sooner, it can be traced more easily and give the best possible chance for eradication and control. Presence of an exotic disease in Australia could shut some markets until freedom can be re-established. This would not only effect the property of detection, but likely the entire state and country – depending on the disease. If it is detected early, the cost, control and re-establishing of markets could occur a lot quicker minimising the impact and saving the industry a lot of money in the long term. If the disease takes longer to be reported or is not found until later, it would cost significantly more in control, eradication and market losses.

Secondly, without surveillance providing sound evidence that we don’t have particular exotic diseases, we would not have access to a lot of our markets. This is not just about having an absence of reports but also having the negative investigations and testing to support our claim of freedom. This is hugely important for northern Australia in particular in order to keep our live export market options open and maintain competitive prices for our cattle.

The system relies on producers to submit samples. For example, the Bucks for Brains surveillance program, which looks for the presence of BSE (or Mad Cow disease) in Australian cattle, requires a certain level of samples to be submitted by producers every year in order for Australia to declare we are free to the World Organisation for Animal Health but more importantly our trading partners. BSE has never been detected in Australia and we have strict legislation requiring that feed containing animal matter is not fed to ruminants to minimise the risk of the disease. Even so, it is a disease of serious significance for our market access in the north, being listed on most of the live export protocols. We are always looking for more samples to test, especially in the north of Australia. Given many producers in this region rely on the market access achieved by undertaking this national surveillance, some extra effort is required. The good news is there is assistance available to help!

If you are located in northern Australia, there are some key surveillance programs you can participate in to help strengthen our agricultural surveillance system in the north:

1. Bucks for Brains This is a national program and all producers in any location are invited to contribute eligible samples when possible. The program provides a monetary incentive ($300 per animal) to producers who submit a brain for testing. $300 might not seem like much with the current price of cattle, but animals that are submitted must be displaying select clinical signs to be eligible for submission such as muscle tremors, poor co-ordination, paralysis or abnormal posture. These may include some cattle that require euthanasia, so instead of putting the animal down, you may be able to submit to this program and receive some compensation whilst also playing a role in demonstrating to our overseas trading partners that we are free from this disease.

Further information on this program and the criteria for livestock to be submitted can be found on the Animal Health Australia website.

2. Screw Worm Fly Surveillance for this pest is unique to northern Australia and involves fly trapping and samples submitted by livestock owners across the northern parts of Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australia. The fly is currently not present in Australia but if it did establish here it would have major impacts on northern livestock production and the live export trade.

For more information on screw worm fly surveillance, how to take a sample and where to send the samples please see the Animal Health Australia website or contact your relevant state or territory agricultural department or local vet. If you see a live animal with a wound that contains maggots you can participate by submitting the maggots as samples to your government laboratory. A sample kit and instructions on how to take samples is included in the post-mortem kits being distributed to remote properties in northern Western Australia and throughout the Northern Territory by the state and territory departments. Northern Queensland will also be distributing similar kits to remote producers early next year.

3. NAMP The National Arbovirus Motoring Program (NAMP) monitors the presence of arbovirus diseases, including bluetongue virus. Some serotypes of bluetongue virus are present in Australia, but we are fortunate to not have the type that causes clinical disease. This surveillance program involves testing of specific herds at set locations and insect trapping to monitor the insects that spread the disease. This program is important to monitor the serotypes present and to keep accurate zoning maps to maintain market access to bluetongue sensitive markets. Unlike the other two surveillance programs described above, herd testing is selected based on specific locations that meet the criteria so participation in this program is usually through invitation by the state or federal departments. Locations are selected based on a number of factors and participation by producers in the right locations helps to strengthen the surveillance undertaken as part of this program.  If you are approached to participate in NAMP, I strongly encourage you to do so.

So far I have focused on targeted surveillance programs as a way to demonstrate that specific pests or diseases of interest are not present in Australia, however, it is also important to undertake investigations into unusual signs of diseases or deaths in your livestock. Assistance in the cost of disease investigations is available. You can contact your state or territory agriculture department for more details on what assistance or compensation (in the unlikely event of a significant disease detection) is available to you.

It is important to remember that if a disease is present on your property, it is there regardless of whether you investigate it or not. By not investigating suspect signs or mortalities you are putting your neighbours, your region and the entire industry at risk (and likely also breaching your state or territory legislative requirements as well). The sooner the detection, the quicker the response.

If you suspect you have a notifiable disease or something unusual on your property, you should call your local vet or stock inspector as soon as possible. Alternatively you can contact the 24 hour emergency animal disease hotline on 1800 675 888.

If you have any questions or would like to see information on any other biosecurity or surveillance topics, please send through your suggestions to and we will do our best to answer these in future articles.