Historically the beef cattle industry had a very shaky slow start in Sydney. The First Fleet arrived in January 1788 with only two bulls and four cows, brought from Cape Town. Unfortunately, within six months, by some unpardonable neglect by the convict who had been entrusted with their care, these two bulls and four cows were lost, having strayed when left unattended while the convict went to get his dinner. Despite much searching at the time the cattle were not found. However, seven years later, after rumours of a herd of cattle being sighted near the Nepean River, Governor Hunter himself set out on 18 November 1795 and ‘to his great surprise and satisfaction’ saw a very fine herd of upwards of some sixty cattle, grazing on fertile pasture. Hunter named the area Cow Pastures. In 1795 a shipment of 131 cattle also arrived from India and these became the basis of Sydney’s first substantial herd. Cattle continued to be imported for both the government and private individuals over the following years. A major biosecurity incident occurred in the cattle of Sydney in 1801-1804. The Sydney Gazette on 27 November 1803 reports:
‘A disease we are sorry to hear at present prevails among the working bullocks at the settlement; and on Wednesday morning a syndrome was observed in one of the pasture cattle that seemed to indicate an attack from the same malady, which affects the creature first in the tongue and in the interstice of the hoof. Whence it originated is not thoroughly ascertained: but every means will be speedily adopted to check its progress, we trust it will not be of long continuance.’
It is likely that the disease in the bullocks was Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) with the outbreak dying out owing to the small animal population (Seddon, 1966). At that time there were no measures in force to safeguard against the introduction of diseased stock. Now the entry and establishment of FMD in Sydney would be a major biosecurity emergency. Although the disease will no longer be introduced by live cattle there remains a high risk from the importation of contaminated food items and fomites. This study tells the story of modern beef cattle herds in Greater Sydney and uses this information to add some knowledge to the FMD risk that Greater Sydney cattle may or may not pose to themselves and the wider cattle industry.
Sydney is a large international city with 4.76 million people (ABS, 2013). Sydney is one of the main ports of entry to Australia with annual passenger movements through its airport of 37.9 million passengers (Sydney airport, 2013). The popular conception of Sydney having a non-agricultural focus is not entirely accurate. Agricultural pursuits which are intensive and require relatively little space; such as nurseries, turf farms and vegetables are prevalent in Sydney. In fact nearly half of all of NSW vegetable production comes from the Greater Sydney region (Industry and Investment, 2010). Beef cattle production in Greater Sydney has a slaughter value of $38.5 million, representing 2.4% of the NSW total (Industry and Investment, 2010). Sydney’s peri-urban agriculture with close geographic links to high levels of international passenger and goods movements may increase the risk for the entry and spread of diseases.
Australia’s beef farms are free of many significant cattle diseases that plague production in other parts of the world. This includes Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD). Foot and Mouth Disease is described as the single greatest threat of any disease to Australia’s livestock industries. It is estimated that a 12 month outbreak of FMD in Australia would cause direct economic losses to the livestock and meat processing sector of $16 billion (Matthews, 2011). The entry of illegally imported FMD contaminated meat products and the feeding of these products to pigs poses the greatest risk for FMD virus to establish itself in Australia. This is why ‘swill feeding’ is banned in all states of Australia. Unfortunately there are problems with the effectiveness and enforcement of this ban among peri-urban and small landholder farmers (Matthews, 2011). Consequently pigs in peri-urban environments may be the most likely animals to become initially exposed to FMD. Pigs are powerful amplifiers of the FMD virus and pose a risk of spread to any cattle located nearby. Wider trading of these local cattle could then place the mainstream commercial cattle industry at risk. It is therefore important to understand the nature and risk of cattle in peri-urban environments.
A stakeholder forum in 2010 analysed a range of risk assessments that had been carried out to compare the specific biosecurity risk posed by small- scale and larger scale commercial livestock producers (Perkins et al., 2011). Generally applicable findings of the comparative risk assessments were that animals owned by small-scale livestock producers are more likely to be exposed to exotic disease due to their locations, biosecurity practices and relative lack of quality assurance programs. However once exposed, commercial livestock producers were considered more likely than small livestock producers to spread hazards more widely, due to their movement and trading patterns.
Choy et al. (2008) describe a peri-urban landscape in Australia as:
One shaped by a dynamic urbanising process that can involve subdivision, fragmentation and land use conversion of formal rural lands. It involves high levels of non-metropolitan growth and results in a blurred transitional zone of temporary mixes of urban and rural activities and functions. The resulting peri-urban landscape will comprise a range of land use activities that exhibit a high degree of heterogeneity, continual change and conflicting values.
These authors also describe the key human groups in peri-urban regions as the ‘seekers’ (sea/tree changers), ‘survivors’ (trades, truckies and adaptive farmers), and ‘speculators’ (developers, equine industry, boutique farms, farm stays and recreation providers) and ‘strugglers’ (holding-on farmers). Livestock production in Australia’s peri-urban regions will inevitably involve a mix of Choy’s ‘seekers’, ‘survivors’ and ‘strugglers’. How these livestock owners interact with each other, the city and livestock industries in other regions, is of significance to many contemporary biosecurity issues.
Schrembri et al. (2007) reported ‘increasing speculation that peri-urban livestock production systems pose a higher risk for the introduction and dissemination of exotic diseases in Australia than rural and regional production.’ Other work has shown that poor biosecurity knowledge is also common amongst commercial and rural based livestock producers in Australia. A survey of commercial beef cattle farmers (>200cattle) in the Riverina and Hume regions of NSW found that 57.3% had no or minimal knowledge of emergency animal diseases (Rast et al., 2014). This study seeks to collect and analyse a range of data about Greater Sydney beef properties in order to understand their specific nature and consider the risks that these peri-urban beef farms may pose to the wider beef cattle industry. The study is not intended to be a detailed risk analysis.
Materials and methods
Greater Sydney was defined as the area covered by the legislative region of Greater Sydney Local Lands Service. Livestock census data from the Greater Sydney Local Lands Service was analysed to determine regional abundance and herd structure. A report was generated from the National Livestock Identification Scheme (NLIS) database and this report was analysed to determine the destination of cattle moving from the saleyards at Camden. An email contact list of 487 Greater Sydney beef cattle owners was supplied from the Greater Sydney Local Lands Service FARMS database. A survey questionnaire was developed and tested on a small group of producers before the main survey commenced. The survey link was then emailed to the list of 487 beef cattle owners. A list of 40 beef cattle owners who were known not to have an email account was also supplied from the Greater Sydney Local Lands Service. Random sampling was used to select producers for phone contact with an initial target sample size of 20. Results were collated in and calculations performed using Microsoft Excel 2010.
In total, 148 surveys were completed representing a participation rate of 30%. The survey respondents had cattle on 211 (10%) of the 2056 land holdings in the Greater Sydney region containing beef cattle. The cattle owned by the survey respondents totalled 5475 head representing 14.6% of all cattle in the region. The maximum number of cattle owned by a survey respondent was 500 while the minimum was one. Thirty nine (27%) respondents had herds containing less than 10 cows while 29 (20%) had herds greater than 50 cattle. The average size of respondent herds was 37 cattle which is higher than the average for all herds in the region.
Beef cattle ownership in Greater Sydney
The distribution of Greater Sydney beef cattle is focused in a diagonal band from the north-east to south-west of the Greater Sydney region. This band has the metropolitan region to its east and the Blue Mountains national park to its west. The greatest numbers of cattle herds are found in the Greater Campbelltown and Wollondilly regions followed in order by Greater Penrith, Hawkesbury, Gosford and Wyong. There were 37,568 beef cattle on 2056 land holdings. The total land area being grazed was 63, 635 hectares. Beef cattle production in the region was dominated by a large number of small herds on small land holdings. The average farm running beef cattle was 31 hectares while the largest land size of a beef farm was 738 hectares. The average size of a beef herd was 18 cattle, 52% of the herds contained less than 10 cattle, 7% contained more than 50 cattle and the largest herd in the region ran 441 cattle. Herd sizes of 1-9 cattle made up 52% of herds followed by 10-24 (29%), 25-49 (11%), 50-99 (5%) and 100-441 (3%). Of the survey respondents 125 (86.8%) indicated that their herd structure was best described as ‘breeding cows and calves’. One hundred and one (69%) of survey respondents kept their cattle on a single landholding while 13 (9%) had cattle on 3 or more holdings. The Angus was the most frequently owned breed of the survey respondents (59.7%) followed by Limousin (24.6%), Hereford (25.4%), and Murray Grey (18.7%). Some breed combinations were more common than others. For example, 17 (50%) of Hereford owners also owned Angus and 16 (48%) of Limousin cattle also owned Angus cattle. Survey respondents were asked to choose one or two main motivators for owning beef cattle. Managing pasture and weeds was the most commonly chosen reason for owning cattle (50%) followed closely by secondary income (45.2%). Other common motivators included hobby (29.5%) home meat or milk consumption (13.7%) and family tradition (11.6%). Only 6 (4.1%) of respondents indicated that cattle ownership was for their primary income. Herds with more than 50 cattle were twenty times more likely to be motivated by income than those with less than 10 cattle, OR= 20, 95% CI (10.1, 43.1). However not all herds above 100 cattle listed income as a motivation for ownership. For example, a Charolais herd of 200 cattle listed the only reason for ownership as ‘family tradition’.
Herd husbandry and management
Beef cattle in Greater Sydney are nearly all on pasture with 145 (98.6%) respondents indicating that pasture was used to feed their cattle. The two respondents who did not have their cattle on pasture utilised grains, hay and silage to feed their herds. Thirty seven (25%) respondents gave their cattle no feeds other than pasture. Many cattle on pasture also received hay or silage as supplementary feed. Ninety two (63%) respondents used hay or silage as feed while 14 (9.6%) fed grains. Seventy three (49.3%) respondents reported daily inspection of their cattle. Twenty (13.5%) respondents do not inspect their cattle more than once a week and 40 (27%) respondents only check their cattle a few times a week. All respondents with greater than 100 head of cattle checked their cattle at least a few times each week. One hundred and eight (73%) respondents had yards, crush and head bail to restrain their cattle while eight cattle owners (5.4%) did not have any of these to restrain their cattle. Forty (27%) of respondents lacked a head bail to restrain cattle but 28% of these did at least have a crush for cattle restraint. The 21 (14.2%) of respondents who had yards but no other handling facilities all had herds of 30 cattle or less. All herds with over 60 head of cattle had yards, crush and a head bail. Private veterinarians were the most popular source of advice with 57 (39.9%) of respondents using them as preferred advisors. The internet and other cattle owners were also popular sources of advice. Government agencies were not a popular source of advice with only two (0.7%) respondents indicating them as their preferred information source. Rural stores and industry bodies were also relatively low in the choices of advisors. Thirty one (22%) of the survey respondents reported that a veterinarian had never examined their cattle. A significant proportion of these respondents had small herds. For example, 49% of respondents with less than ten cattle had never used a veterinarian. Sixty one (41%) of survey respondents had used a veterinarian to examine their cattle in the last 12 months. While all herds with more than 100 cattle had used a veterinarian within the last 12 months it was interesting that a respondent with a herd of 80 cattle had not used a veterinarian since 1999 and a respondent with 50 Angus cattle reported that his cattle had never been examined by a veterinarian. There was a significant difference in whether or not a veterinarian had been used between herds of 0-9 cattle and 10-24 cattle, OR = 0.24, 95% CI (0.1, 0.5). Thirty three (24%) of the survey respondents used no vaccines in their cattle herds. All herds with more than 100 cattle used vaccines. The vaccine most commonly used was ‘5 in 1’ by 61 (44%) of respondents. Fifty six (40%) of herds were vaccinated against leptosporosis. Only 11 (8%) of respondents chose to vaccinate against pestivirus. The only other vaccine used by respondents but not listed in the survey questions was Bovine Ephemeral Fever vaccine which was used by two respondents. When given the opportunity to report other vaccine use beyond those listed in the survey question eight respondents incorrectly listed a macrocyclic lactone drench as a ‘vaccine’. Twenty four respondents (16%) use artificial insemination in their herds.
Cattle Trading and Movements
New cattle are introduced to beef herds by 101 (70%) of survey respondents. The frequency of cattle introductions in a single year ranged from once every five years to monthly. The average introduction frequency was 1.6 times a year. Nine respondents specifically mentioned that replacement bulls were the only cattle that were introduced. Eighty five percent of survey participants indicated that they sold cattle through saleyards. Herds of 24-49 cattle were much more likely to use saleyards than the smaller herds of 0-9 cattle, OR = 4.9, 95% CI (2.2, 10.5). Fifty eight percent of herds of less than ten cattle still used saleyards. The average trading frequency was twice a year. Camden saleyards are the main saleyards used by cattle owners in Greater Sydney. Analysis of the National Livestock Identification Scheme showed that in the 12 months between 1 July 2013 and 1 July 2014 Camden saleyard had 11, 745 lots of cattle totalling 28, 589 head, of these 14,542 (51%) were sent direct to abattoirs and 9, 910 (35%) were initially sold back into the Greater Sydney region. Therefore 86% of Greater Sydney cattle were either sent direct to slaughter or simply resold into the local region. Only 2,528 (9%) cattle were moved into other regions of NSW and only 1620 (6%) cattle moved interstate. Young, Finley, Goulburn and the Central Tablelands were the regions of NSW that received the highest numbers of Greater Sydney cattle. Of the interstate movements Victoria was by far the most common destination with 1,515 cattle movements from Greater Sydney to Victoria. Thirty six percent of survey participants indicated that they sell cattle privately.
Overseas Travel and In Contact animals
Thirty two (22%) survey respondents’ household members never travel overseas. In those households where someone does travel overseas, once every 1-3 years is the most common frequency of travel (33% of all survey respondents). There is no association between herd size and frequency of overseas travel. Ninety three (63%) of survey respondents do not travel to Asia, Africa, Middle East or central/southern America. However, 45 (30%) of survey respondents travelled overseas at least once every 1-3 years and do travel to regions of either Asia, Africa, Middle East or central/southern America. 133 (90%) reported that their neighbours also owned cattle. Thirty six (25%) of respondents indicated that cattle from neighbours were known to stray onto their property. Pigs were not owned by 143 (97%) of respondents. Only 7% of respondents thought that there were domestic pigs within one kilometre of their beef cattle and most respondents do not see feral pigs on their properties.
Emergency Animal Disease Awareness
Survey participants were asked to choose from four options as to the involvement they would have with a veterinarian if one of their cows had stopped eating for 36 hours, was reluctant to move and was drooling. Ninety three (81%) respondents would contact a private veterinarian either to request a farm visit (68%) or to seek a prescription product (13%). Herds of 10-24 cattle were nearly three times more likely to call a veterinarian than herds of one to nine cattle, OR= 2.85 (1.3, 6.27). However, the largest herds of 100-500 cattle were no more likely to call a veterinarian than the smallest herds of one to nine cattle, OR= 1, 95% CI (0.51-1.95). An interesting comment from one respondent was ‘could be 3-day sickness, not a big deal, would keep an eye on it’. Respondents were also asked to choose an action if, instead of only one cow, 10% of their herd were not eating, were drooling and reluctant to move around for 36 hours. With this scenario the number of respondents who would involve a veterinarian increased to 138 (96%). Once again herds of 10-99 were more likely to call a veterinarian than herds with one to nine cattle but there was no significant difference between the smallest herds with one to nine cattle and the largest herds with 100-500 cattle, OR=0.95, 95% CI (0.48, 1.88).
Respondents were also asked to choose which of the following diseases they considered to be an emergency disease: liver fluke, FMD, Anthrax, drench resistant worms, Three day sickness, Bovine Johne’s Disease (BJD), Theileria, Rabies, none of the above, all of the above or uncertain. Government biosecurity staff and industry leaders would consider that FMD, Anthrax and Rabies would be ‘emergency’ diseases. For the purposes of this analysis choosing these three diseases alone is considered a ‘correct’ answer. Only 16 (11%) respondents had the correct answer. Respondents with herds containing 100-500 cattle had the highest percentage (17%) of respondents with the ‘correct’ answer, but this left the majority with the wrong answer. Respondents with the smallest herds had the lowest percentage (2.5%) of respondents with the ‘correct’ answers. Owners of herds with 10-24 cattle were significantly more likely to get correct answers than those with herds of one to nine cattle, OR= 7.87, 95% CI (3.76, 16.46). Foot and Mouth disease is considered the most serious emergency disease for Australian livestock. Eighty three (56%) respondents included FMD in their choices. This figure includes the 48 (32%) of respondents who simply chose ‘all of the above’ for their answer as to what diseases they considered were emergency diseases. If these respondents were removed only 35 (24%) included FMD. Owners with herds of more than 100 cattle were significantly more likely to have included FMD when compared to the owners of the smallest herds of 0-9 cattle, OR = 3.1, 95% CI (1.7, 7.3).Some respondents chose diseases such as drench resistance, Bovine Johne’s Disease (BJD), three day sickness or Theileria. BJD was the most commonly perceived emergency disease with 45 (30%) selecting it as an emergency disease.
Cattle ownership in Greater Sydney
Pasture based cattle in small herds and on small landholdings are still common in the peri-urban fringe of Sydney. The dominance of breeding cattle and calves in the region was consistent with the findings of Ausvet Animal Health Services (2006) in regard to ‘specialised breeding’ and ‘breeding and growing’ being the production systems of the region. Although the slaughter of cattle originating from Greater Sydney is still of considerable economic value, beef cattle ownership in Greater Sydney is considered non-commercial. Cattle ownership in Greater Sydney is predominantly a land management tool and hobby. Despite this, 50% still derive income from cattle. The relatively high number of cattle herds that are utilised for home meat or milk consumption may be a public health concern. Consistent with other temperate regions, Bos taurus cattle dominate in Greater Sydney. The popularity of the Angus breed is related to the market favouring black cattle. The relatively high number of Limousin cattle could be explained by their popularity as a terminal sire over British breed cows such as Angus and Hereford. Many dairy farms once operated on the outskirts of Sydney but closed down as deregulation eroded profits and more choices became available with encroaching urbanisation. The 10% of beef cattle that are of dairy origin is likely a reflection of cows or descendants of cows retained after a dairy ceased operation. On some farms it may also be a continuation of the older practice to use dairy cows to rear beef vealer calves. The presence of dairy cattle in Sydney beef herds may have increased the risk of these herds having been exposed to BJD. Australia’s national program for BJD encourages the segregation of dairy and beef cattle as a strategy to protect the low prevalence of the disease in the commercial beef cattle sector. The dairy-beef sector in areas such as Sydney causes complexity in formulating effective BJD policy.
Greater Sydney and Emergency Disease Risk
The level of a cattle owner’s knowledge and their perceptions of emergency animal disease are likely to be related to the risk of their cattle being exposed to an emergency disease. Good knowledge regarding emergency animal diseases may be more likely to lead to protective biosecurity behaviour. This study on non-commercial beef cattle owners in a peri-urban environment cannot be directly compared to the study of commercial beef cattle owners by Rast et al. (2014) because of different methodologies. However, both studies found relatively poor knowledge on emergency disease. In this study 89% of non-commercial peri-urban beef cattle owners failed to correctly identify three key emergency animal diseases while Rast et al. (2014) found that 57.3% of commercial beef cattle producers had no or minimal emergency disease knowledge. While emergency disease knowledge is far from ideal in commercial beef cattle owners it is perhaps even poorer in owners of very small herds in peri-urban regions. This is probably because they have had limited exposure to or understanding of biosecurity messages from veterinarians, government agencies and industry. The majority of the peri-urban beef cattle owners in this survey indicated that they would seek veterinary assistance for a syndrome that could be consistent with early spread of FMD. This has not been determined for commercial herds in rural regions so a specific comparison cannot be discussed. However this study did provide data indicating that the largest peri-urban herds, approaching commercial size (100-500 cattle), were less likely to involve a veterinarian when compared to respondents with 10-99 cattle. This may suggest that both commercial sized herds and very small herds can have a reluctance to use veterinarians for disease diagnosis. The additional comment from one respondent of ‘could be 3 day sickness not a big deal, would keep an eye on it’ suggests that FMD could easily be confused with Bovine Ephemeral Fever.
Human travel to an overseas country with endemic FMD, the contamination of clothes, shoes or other equipment with FMD virus, and then handling animals on a Sydney beef cattle farm within 7 days, is a potential pathway for FMD entry to Greater Sydney beef herds. FMD is endemic in Asia, Africa, Middle East and South America (FAO, 2013). Thirty percent of survey respondents indicated household travel at least once in every one to three years to these regions. They would pose an increased FMD risk to cattle in Greater Sydney if they visited rural regions when overseas, managed to bring contaminated belongings past Australian quarantine and had poor knowledge about emergency diseases and important disease syndromes or poor disease reporting. Fortunately 100% of these travellers indicated, in their response to a separate survey question, that if they observed inappetance, drooling and reluctance to move in 10% of their herd they would request a veterinarian to examine cattle on their farm. In addition over 60% of these travellers also recognised FMD as an emergency animal disease. Further studies would be needed to ascertain whether these respondents answers truly reflect the actions they would take to a FMD like syndrome as they may have answered according to what they thought was best practice rather than what they would actually do. The rate of overseas travel to FMD endemic countries has not been specifically studied for commercial beef farmers so there is no comparison to the findings of this study
This study suggests that it is not common for pigs to be housed on the same property as beef cattle or for pigs to be knowingly located within one kilometre of beef cattle. In addition, very few properties with beef cattle report the presence of feral pigs. This may mean that there is a useful delay in the spread of FMD from a small holding with infected pigs to a farm holding with beef cattle. On the other hand, property sizes in Greater Sydney are small, pigs are important amplifiers of FMD virus - up to 400 million infectious doses per day- (FAO, 2013), and windborne transmission occurs. Sydney beef cattle would be placed immediately at high risk once an infected pig was taken to Camden saleyards as both cattle and pigs are sold at Camden. Exposure to disease is increased by poor biosecurity measures or a high level of cattle introductions. Most new infectious disease on a cattle farm will ‘walk off a truck’. Although new cattle are introduced by the majority of Sydney cattle owners, these movements are relatively infrequent and many herds are likely ‘closed’ apart from bull introductions every few years. A range of biosecurity measures to prevent disease exposure are promoted by the cattle industry (Animal Health Australia, 2014). Although this study did not specifically collect data about the biosecurity measures imposed by Greater Sydney beef cattle owners, the small size of properties, relative lack of adequate handling facilities and low use of preventative health measures suggests that the implementation of biosecurity measures such as the quarantining of introduced cattle would be uncommon. Restricted access or biosecurity signs on front gates are rarely seen when driving in peri-urban Sydney.
Unnoticed dissemination of emergency animal disease will occur from a delay in detection. This can occur from inadequate stock observation, poor understanding of important disease syndromes, a reluctance to report disease or employ a veterinarian for disease diagnosis. The non-commercial peri-urban beef farmers in this survey inspected their cattle more frequently than the commercial producers surveyed by Rast el al. (2014). Weekly was the most common inspection frequency for commercial producers while daily inspection was the most common frequency for peri-urban producers. Daily inspection was undertaken by 49.3% of Sydney beef cattle owners while only 28% of commercial producers inspected their cattle daily. A fortnightly inspection rate was carried out by 14% of commercial producers compared to 2% of peri-urban producers. An important finding in this study was that owners of less than ten cattle had a lower rate of cattle inspection when compared to larger peri-urban herds. In this study 68% of respondents indicated they would contact a veterinarian if one of their herd stopped eating, was reluctant to move and was drooling while a greater number (84%) indicated they would do so if 10% of their herd were so affected. There was a difference between respondents’ knowledge of a disease name and whether or not an important syndrome of that disease is occurring. Despite only 56% of respondents correctly identifying FMD as an emergency disease, it was reassuring that a higher number would arrange a veterinarian to visit their cattle if they observed them with a syndrome consistent with early stages of infection with FMD. This may suggest a reasonably good understanding of what would be a significant disease syndrome and a willingness to involve veterinarians in the health of their cattle. However further studies would be needed to explore the possibility that respondents have simply provided the answer they thought was expected. Other studies into syndrome awareness by farmers have generally found a lower involvement of veterinarians in disease syndromes. Gilbert et al. (2014) found a probability of 0.25 that UK cattle farmers would involve a veterinarian in the diagnosis of inappetance and diarrhoea. Ball (2012) found a median probability of 0.3 that a commercial beef cattle farmer on the North Coast of NSW would contact a veterinarian after two cattle deaths.
A veterinarian had been used at some stage by 78% of respondents in this study, with 44% of them having used a veterinarian in the last 12 months. This is lower than the figure found for NSW and QLD commercial beef producers of whom 61.9% had used a veterinarian in the last 12 months (Rast et al., 2014). However, in Greater Sydney 100% of respondents with more than 100 cattle had used a veterinarian in the last 12 months. The use of veterinarians was also higher in this peri-urban study than that typically reported for northern Australian commercial beef properties of which only 20-30% used a veterinarian regularly (Frawley, 2003). The results showing that veterinarians are the most popular source of advice for Greater Sydney beef cattle owners provides further evidence of the willingness to involve a veterinarian in disease diagnosis in some herds in a peri-urban environment. This is likely in comparison to rural areas where commercial farmers often seek advice first from their rural store or stock and station agent. The exception to utilising veterinarians in Greater Sydney seems to be for those owning cattle in herds of less than ten for which 49% of owners have never used a veterinarian.
This study shows that the majority of Greater Sydney cattle are sent directly from the saleyards to regional abattoirs. This substantially decreases the chance of these cattle spreading disease by walking onto other farms. However, if any of these cattle intended for slaughter were within the incubation period of an emergency disease such as FMD they could readily spread the infection to other cattle while at the saleyards. The risk to commercial cattle producers in wider Australia is limited to the 15% of traded cattle that are sold to other regions of NSW or Victoria. If FMD did enter cattle herds through Greater Sydney and was detected early enough, disease control authorities may have zoning options to assist key northern export markets to recover more readily.
From official stock records, roughly half of the cattle in Greater Sydney are in herds of less than ten cattle and the other half are in herds of more than ten cattle. Based on the results in this survey the nature of emergency disease detection and spread may be different between these two size groups. It seems likely that if a highly infectious emergency disease, such as FMD, entered a Greater Sydney beef farm of 10-200 cattle the spread of the disease throughout the Greater Sydney region would be rapid due to small property sizes, neighbouring cattle, straying animals, human movements and local trading patterns. Fortunately detection of infection in herds of this size is likely to be more rapid than in larger commercial herds in many regions of Australia because of the high rate of morbidity noticed in a frequently observed herd, rapidity of local spread, high visibility of cattle from major roads, effective veterinary services and adequate knowledge amongst these owners of important disease syndromes. However if emergency disease first entered into a herd with less than ten cattle there is substantial uncertainty as to whether the infection would spread rapidly and if it would be detected easily. Foot and Mouth Disease field experience by Australian veterinarians in countries such as Nepal (M.C.Ball, personal observation, October 15, 2013) where cattle are often owned in groups of only one to three animals has shown that in this situation FMD spread can be relatively slow even when small groups of cattle are within a hundred metres of each other. Although the virus is highly contagious, if there are no regular human or animal contacts between the infected herd and other cattle, lateral spread may be less likely. Detection of disease in these herds would be slowed because owners of these very small herds in Greater Sydney inspect their cattle less frequently and often do not call veterinarians. However, the possibility of delayed detection in herds of less than ten is significant because 58% of these farmers will at some stage trade cattle through commercial saleyards. This is an important pathway from Greater Sydney peri-urban beef cattle to commercial farms in other regions. The findings of this study support and extend the conclusions of Perkins et al. (2011) who reported that larger commercial herds are more likely to spread disease widely than smaller livestock producers. Overall a beef herd of any size in peri-urban Greater Sydney is less likely to spread disease widely because trading patterns from the region are limited in number and destination.
When compared to commercial herds, average peri-urban beef cattle herds in Greater Sydney may have decreased emergency animal disease awareness, higher chance of disease exposure, earlier lateral spread to neighbouring properties and more rapid local spread. However when compared to commercial herds, peri-urban herds may have a higher rate of cattle inspection, increased chance of early detection and less chance of spread of an emergency animal disease to other regions of Australia. The rate of spread and chance of detection could be substantially different between herds in a peri-urban region. Whether or not a herd contains more or less than ten cattle may be an important factor in disease spread and detection. This study suggests that undetected dissemination of disease may be more likely amongst the smaller peri-urban herds.
Challenges of Disease control in Greater Sydney
Having small groups of cattle on 2,056 different parcels of land creates operational challenges if the entry of an exotic disease or a regulated endemic disease control program necessitated compulsory testing, vaccination or slaughter of all cattle. Significant planning and a high number of skilled stock-handlers would be required. In the event of an emergency animal disease, substantial resources would be needed from private and government veterinarians in other areas of NSW and Australia. For four months of the equine influenza outbreak, that began in Greater Sydney, over 385 veterinary clinicians and over 2000 other staff were required. Initially surveillance in the equine influenza outbreak was undertaken on all suspect disease reports but ‘within a short time, there were insufficient resources to immediately follow up all reported suspect cases’ (Webster, 2011). Handling facilities are inadequate for veterinary investigations on many properties. Portable facilities would be needed to collect samples from suspect FMD cattle if they were on the 5% of properties with no yards or the 27% with no head bail. Of concern in the results of this study was the very poor awareness of FMD as the name of a significant emergency animal disease, especially in owners with less than 50 cattle. This poor awareness and knowledge would mean that in the event of an outbreak significant education would be required to gain support for disease control. Compulsory on-farm slaughter of cattle in the Greater Sydney region to control FMD would cause immense social and environmental challenges. Cattle are kept on small properties often in full view of high volumes of passing traffic and scenes of cattle euthanasia and dead cattle waiting for burial, burning or transport would be horrific images to the average Sydneysider. Some of the cattle owned in Sydney would be considered valued pets and owners would resist their destruction. The diagnosis of FMD in Australia would lead to animal health authorities declaring an immediate national livestock standstill. Movement of any cattle would initially be prohibited.
Kirkland et al., (2011) considered that when Equine Influenza was diagnosed in Sydney the horse standstill was effective but the movement of people remained a significant issue. People who had handled infected horses were responsible for the spread of Equine Influenza, including an owner that infected horses 60 kilometres away. The same issue would be important during an FMD outbreak. Once the national livestock standstill was lifted, ongoing control of the disease would occur by regulated ‘zoning’. The smallest ‘Restricted Area’ that should be imposed to manage a FMD detection in Australia is a 3 kilometre radius and any ‘Control area’ should be at least a ten kilometre radius (Animal Health Australia, 2012). Within the Restricted Area every single property with livestock would need a property visit and stock inspection by a veterinary investigations team. Movement restrictions would be placed on all properties with livestock in the control area. Disruption would occur to all residents in the control zone irrespective of whether or not they own livestock. A significant number of the cattle in this survey were located in peri-urban lands around the centres of Campbelltown and Penrith. If even just a single property around these centres was found to have FMD, the ten kilometre radius would include an immense number of properties and residents. However, as discussed, it is extremely unlikely that FMD would be detected before its spread to other properties. In reality, a detection of FMD in Greater Sydney and subsequent tracing within the region would likely lead to multiple restricted areas within Greater Sydney and the entire state of NSW becoming a control area.
Australia has compulsory Property Identification Codes (PIC) and movement requirements for cattle. This allows cattle and products to be traced in the event of emergency disease, notifiable disease programs or food safety incidents. Cattle owners with multiple landholdings for their cattle increase the difficulty to trace cattle as owners have the option to have one PIC over multiple landholdings. In the event of an emergency disease in the Greater Sydney region, tracing and investigations managers should be prepared for at least 30% of cattle owners who have their cattle spread over more than one landholding. Additional challenges for tracing livestock would come from the 36% of Greater Sydney beef owners who trade cattle privately. These cattle movements may not be recorded in the NLIS database.
Recommendations to improve disease surveillance and emergency disease preparedness
Greater Sydney beef herds (especially those with less than ten animals) may be at higher risk of exposure and unnoticed dissemination of emergency disease. To protect the cattle industry in other parts of NSW and Victoria it is recommended that Greater Sydney be considered a unique area of risk for diseases such as FMD. The limited cattle movements from Sydney are largely to regional NSW and Victoria. It is in the interest of these regions to share the resources to tackle peri-urban risk from Greater Sydney.
Resources to reduce the chance of FMD border entry by passenger movements or legal and illegal imports remains primarily the role of the Commonwealth. State Government and the livestock industry should support ongoing specific post- border projects in Greater Sydney to reduce the risk of swill feeding, to control feral pigs and to enhance the awareness of emergency animal disease in both pig and cattle producers with very small herds. Such awareness should focus on early detection, key syndromes of significance and specifically address the possibility that a Greater Sydney beef producer may mistake early FMD for Bovine Ephemeral Fever. Consideration should be given as to how to fund the distribution of materials in the recent relaunch of the ‘Look Check, Ask a Vet’ (Animal Health Australia, 2014) to all of the over 2000 known beef cattle producers and small pig owners in Greater Sydney.
The priority of recognising FMD in smallholder piggeries before it may have the chance to spread to beef properties is very important. Specific active surveillance projects including the provision of subsidised veterinary services to this sector could be considered a worthwhile investment. Other work could include traceability exercises to test the ability not only to trace Greater Sydney cattle in the National Livestock Identification System (NLIS) computer database but also to test if the cattle can be physically found and mustered for inspection. This ‘reality check’ can help anticipate the required resources during an outbreak. To sell cattle with a National Vendor Declaration (NVD) beef farmers need to be Livestock Production Assurance (LPA) accredited (MLA, 2014). A specific project to audit all Greater Sydney LPA accredited producers over a 2 year period would be ideal. The audit could be expanded to include not only aspects of the LPA but also to focus on emergency disease awareness and adequateness of facilities. If the process could encourage an increase in the frequency of livestock inspection there would be significant benefits as the largest determinant of low probability for early disease detection was the frequency of cattle inspection. Seventy five per cent of respondents in Greater Sydney would ring a vet if they observed signs suggesting FMD. Unfortunately many producers do not check their cattle often enough for early detection. Removal of LPA accreditation should be considered for Sydney producers considered a risk to the industry. A separate project could penalise producers that lack adequate handling facilities by substantially increasing the cost of NLIS devices if cattle cannot be tagged at the property of origin.
A sound surveillance system that is suited to the region would assist early detection. Shepherd (2006) outlined that for veterinary surveillance in Australia’s extensive commercial beef cattle ‘the effectiveness of the veterinary clinician network is diminishing’ and there is a ‘time delay because laboratory analysis is required’. The situation in Greater Sydney is different because there are still veterinary clinicians willing and able to provide service to the peri-urban beef producers and the State Diagnostic Laboratory is located within the region. Schemes to encourage the access of private veterinarians onto cattle properties in the region would be ideal. This could include an increase in targeted support of laboratory fees or specific incentive payments. To prepare for the resources required during an emergency outbreak all private veterinarians in the region with the ability to work with cattle should be trained in FMD detection and emergency management. Links to the diagnostic laboratory should be strengthened. Key private veterinarians could have pre-established contracts with animal disease control authorities to provide service whenever needed. Although the effectiveness of the veterinary clinicians in Greater Sydney may not be diminishing as much as some rural areas it is becoming increasingly recognised that clinician-dependent models of surveillance are less effective at detecting outbreaks of rare or unrecognised diseases and that it is also difficult for clinicians to recognise slow-moving outbreaks in the early stages (Shepherd, 2006). For this reason it would be a sound investment to supplement clinician based surveillance with an innovative syndromic surveillance system. There is growing belief that syndromic surveillance methods may augment disease detection capacity provided by alert clinicians (Buehler et al., 2003). The response rate to the survey in this study was rapid when delivered by email. The proliferation of smart phones has opened up significant opportunities for both extension messages to encourage disease reporting and innovative surveillance. Greater Sydney should be a specific focus for any roll out of State or Commonwealth developed mobile device applications that enhance disease reporting. Such applications should ideally be developed with consideration to syndromic surveillance principles. The end user in the paddock should be able to select symptoms that are analysed as they are entered. A range of syndrome combinations would lead to rapid intervention and referral by a system moderator. High alert signs could include any cattle reported to be drooling, in appetent and a reluctance to move. This type of system can never replace the need for a clinician but simply speeds up the timeframe in which animal health authorities can be suspicious of a potential FMD outbreak.
Planning, expert think tanks and scenario exercises are needed to help overcome the challenge that will inevitably occur if a disease like FMD was diagnosed in Greater Sydney. One issue to focus on could be the role animal health authorities envisage FMD vaccination may need to play in a peri-urban environment. Roche et al. (2014) mention that, in the event of resource constraints, ring vaccination is more likely to achieve eradication faster than stamping out or pre-emptive culling strategies. This may be relevant for the challenges of disease control in the Greater Sydney region. With or without vaccination, approving the transport of cattle to an abattoir within a Greater Sydney Restricted area would need to be considered as an alternative to mass slaughter within the confines of a global city. Other work to profile Greater Sydney beef cattle owners with less than 10 cattle would be a useful follow up activity because of the suggestion by this study that these producers are a different risk to peri-urban producers with larger herds.
After 226 years of white settlement, beef cattle still remain an important feature of the peri-urban landscape in Greater Sydney. They play a useful role in land management, provision of secondary income and create an enjoyable outdoor pursuit that connects people to the land. These cattle create some risk to commercial cattle farms but trading patterns limit the geographic location and magnitude of that risk. There may not be significant differences in the risk of emergency animal disease exposure and spread between commercial herds and the peri-urban herds of 10-200 cattle in size. However there may be a significant difference in risk between smaller peri-urban herds and commercial herds. Further studies and activities could explore this further in efforts to prepare against an ‘attack from the malady, which affects the creature first in the tongue and in the interstice of the hoof’.