In the last few days we have been advised that the emergency permit for on-farm bait mixing has been cancelled, and that some or all of the production sites have been discontinued. Information behind this has been scant but the responsible authority, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines authority, has posted a comment regarding concerns about operator safety and other matters of concern to them. (http://www.apvma.gov.au/news_media/our_view/2011/2011-09-13_mouse_bait_mixing_sites.php)
The handling of large quantities of dangerous chemicals at ACTA is under accredited processes that we developed in conjunction with independent safety experts to minimise the risks of worker exposure to zinc phosphide dust or toxic phosphine gas. This is a component of bait production cost.
Recently we received reports that some farmers are under the impression, or giving the impression, that gamma sterilised MOUSEOFF® ZP bait is currently not available. This is false information and may be being issued as part of a campaign to bring pressure on regulators to reinstate the emergency permits for local production. As we understand it, these permits, like our own permit to manufacture MOUSEOFF® Econobait late last autumn, were to allow increased bait availability while sterilising plants who supply us could not keep up with the unprecedented national demand. We did not oppose such permits as there was then a need to save crops, even though the ACTA plant was able to produce several thousand tonnes of high quality bait to mount the biggest mouse management exercise ever attempted in Australia. More than 3 million hectares of crops were saved as a result, but bait could not always be in the perfect place at the right time as we could only follow the rural merchant ordering sequence for delivery. We are distressed that some early plantings were lost but a vast team did all they could to get the best result possible.
By autumn's end all orders for bait had been met and many merchants (Elders, Landmark, NRI, AIRR, CRT, IHD and independents) were holding excess stock - some of which is still being spread. Thus some of the enormous autumn demand was itself a stockpiling process for industry preparedness.
ACTA has continued to rebuild its own stocks which now stand at about 700 tonnes of the premium sterilised MOUSEOFF® ZP and 150 tonnes of MOUSEOFF® Econobait (made with high quality seed tested and screened grain but not sterilised).
ACTA has a permit valid until the end of September to process “Farmers-Own” bait using their grain and returned after quality processing at our plant. This service is available through rural merchants providing an effective product to farmers at less than $5/kg plus GST. This product can only be used on the site from which the grain was supplied.
Cheaper bait can be made to service immediate needs but the Grains Industry itself advised ACTA in 1999 to incorporate an allowance for strategic stockpiles of bait and chemical into bait pricing. This has meant that bait has always been available reliably for every mouse event in the last decade. Only in 2011 was the supply of sterilised grain for production unable to keep pace with demand when we were faced with a requirement 6 times bigger than any previous need and three times the scale of our own “worst case” scenario planning, for which our preparedness could easily handle.
The past autumns mouse plague was a 1-in-50 year event that arose due to the vast areas affected by mice in four states simultaneously. ACTA had warned of this risk as early as October 2010, the January 2011 floods in some area caused everyone to think that much of the risk had been flooded away. This proved to not be so, but every expert in Australia was consulted and all thought the floods would lessen the risk. Even so ACTA expanded plant capacity and maintained a high state of readiness. We air freighted chemical well ahead of our buffer stockpiles running low. An additional cost exceeding $1million was absorbed without an increase in bait price. In fact bait prices were reduced by ACTA pioneering an economy 500kg bulka pack for the registered product and also by developing a non sterilised version of MOUSEOFF® called MOUSEOFF® Econobait. MOUSEOFF® Econobait is made with very high quality screened and seed tested grain using triple rust resistant varieties yet still meeting our OH&S requirements and giving the farmer the same attractant mixture that is a feature of MOUSEOFF® effectiveness.
It appears that some have recently mounted a campaign that gives landowners an impression that ACTA's costs are high. Yet with crops valued at above $700/ha this season, the investment in mouse bait is recovered if the crop is at risk of suffering more than 1% damage. Mice are very capable of causing significant economic damage every night fields remain untreated.
ACTA cannot control retail pricing as this is an offence under the Trade Practices Act. We believe the vast majority of retailers have held their mark-ups very low, while at the same time putting an enormous effort into providing local agronomic advice. Rural merchants in many cases provide cash flow and financing support to their clients. At the peak of the autumn plague we estimate that some 1000 people were involved in the regional distribution of bait, so the effect of this resource in managing mouse plagues is commonly underestimated. Clearly the efforts of qualified staff in the rural merchant system has considerably increased the resources to battle Australia's vertebrate pest problems overall in recent years.
Now a small group of vocal farmers seek to misrepresent the facts in order to justify a risky, quick and cheap approach to strategic management of mice. For some farmer group politicians to say that they have been warning government for weeks is a farce when the experienced mouse managers of Australia took serious action more than 8 months ago. It was that action that saved crops this autumn. These are easily verified facts.
There is no lag in supply of registered mouse control products. There is no shortage of mouse bait. ACTA has more than adequate supplies available immediately and forward staged at Toowoomba, Dubbo, Wagga Wagga, Adelaide and Melbourne. In addition ACTA has substantial amounts of sterilised grain in stock for rapid conversion to MOUSEOFF® ZP Rodent Bait on demand. Other registered suppliers also have stocks of product.
Mice remain a serious risk to crops this spring. Overall the crop risk appears to be occurring later than normal, due perhaps to delayed planting and cold, wet winter conditions. This has delayed mice emerging from winter nesting and crops from reaching the risky stages of podding (canola) and tillering (cereals). The big question is just how big will the spring problem be? Mice have survived over winter yet August monitoring in Victoria by DPI indicated a sharp decline. Less specific information is available from elsewhere but if the problem was massive we would expect to have seen more enquiries by now. We do not receive quantitative information from some sources but we do know that the vast merchant system that works with farmers daily is not yet seeing a surge in need. Individual merchants still have excess stock from autumn, and this may need to clear the system before more new bait will be needed.
To counter this we have indirect reports that some farmers are estimating areas at risk of 100,000 Ha in Victoria and perhaps similar in southern NSW. QLD and Northern NSW are relatively quiet of mice except for this past weeks hit in Emerald and Clermont.
For SA, many crops may have already past the high risk phase, though some modest yield loss towards harvest remains possible, even if crops have escaped earlier damage.
A problem of even a half million hectares can be treated immediately from ACTA and rural merchants. Statements of current “crisis” are proving to be exaggerated. This does not mean complacency should prevail so we remain in a high state of readiness to supply on demand.
The “crisis calls” appear more related to bring pressure on government and regulators than a reflection of quantified technical risk?
Pricing of MOUSEOFF® ZP Rodent Bait has not increased in three years. In fact some cheaper packs (eg bulka bags) have been brought on line at reduced cost. No premium has been added for shift labour, air freight nor emergency sourcing and testing of grain and packaging. ACTA, at the request of the very industry that is complaining about costs, provide the stockpiles that protect against emergency situations. We also produce a very high quality product under controlled and safe conditions of manufacture and we pay regulatory levies and taxes for the distribution of registered chemical products. We are well known for reinvesting our revenue, into new R&D, support of the Invasive Animals CRC (e.g. a $1.4 million commitment over the next 5 years) and to the support of the Vertebrate Pest Conference and ACTA Award for Pest Management Excellence. We defend the existing technologies by contributing to various reviews and also work hard to find additional options for farmers.
ACTA urges responsibility of landowners, regulators and agricultural political leaders to look closely and critically at the source and intent of recent media statements to make informed judgements on the most appropriate actions moving forward.
A breakdown of the orderly handling of agricultural chemicals is at risk along with enormous risk to the environment and to the reputation of Australia internationally as a responsible food producer.
Prof Linton Staples
Animal Control Technologies Pty Ltd
PO Box 379
Somerton Vic 3062
Ph 03 9308 9688
Fax 03 9308 9622
M 0411 079333
Animal Control Technologies
46-50 Freight Drive
Somerton, Victoria, 3062
Telephone +61 3 9308 9688
Fax +61 3 9308 9622