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Old disease, new problems for Texas cattle industry

Rounding Up TB

Cattle have long been a symbol of Texas, and they're still part of the landscape. According to the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA), Texas farms and ranches are home to about 15 million head of cattle, more than any other state. A 2001 Texas A&M University report says the cattle industry contributes more than $15 billion annually to the state's economy. Recently, however, an old enemy of Texas livestock has posed a new threat to the state's cattle industry.

Bovine tuberculosis (TB) is caused by infectious bacteria and can spread to all warm-blooded animals, including humans. Efforts to eradicate it in the U.S. started in 1917, and according to the Texas Cooperative Extension, those efforts reduced the disease's occurrence in the national cattle population from 5 percent in 1917 to just 0.015 percent in 1990. But despite TB's rarity, it is still causing problems.

Status lost
In 2000, following five consecutive years with no confirmed cases of TB in 252 of the state's 254 counties, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recognized Texas as TB-free, allowing the unrestricted transportation and sale of Texas cattle to other states and countries. Portions of El Paso and Hudspeth counties have recurring bovine-TB cases, so the USDA restricts the transport and sale of cattle from those areas, which the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC) refers to as the El Paso Movement Restriction Zone (MRZ).

Texas once again has the disease on its doorstep, though. According to TAHC, in July 2001, USDA meat inspectors found TB in an animal at a Texas slaughterhouse and traced the animal to a herd of 44 cattle in Fayette County. The herd's owner destroyed the herd rather than conduct a time-consuming and expensive testing procedure.

Then, in December 2001, a dairy in West Texas reported a possible TB case, which inspectors confirmed and traced to a 67-head Pecos County herd. Half of that herd was infected, and the owner destroyed the animals.

As a result of these incidents, in June 2002 the USDA lowered Texas' TB-free status, officially known as Accredited Free, to Modified Accredited Advanced. The change means Texas breeding cattle--those that have not been spayed or neutered--must have a negative TB test within 60 days before they are transported across state lines and must carry official USDA identification, such as a brand or an ear tag. Until the June status change, these types of restrictions applied only to the MRZ.

Numbers game
TAHC opposed the USDA ruling, which states an Accredited Free state that has diagnosed tuberculosis in two or more herds within a 48-month period must be reclassified as Modified Accredited Advanced. TAHC contends that the low number of infected herds specified in the ruling is unfair. Given that Texas has about 153,000 herds, the chance of finding TB in two herds in the state is much greater than the chance of finding it in states with fewer cattle.

In a July 2002 report to the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), TAHC said two infected herds in Texas reflects a much lower prevalence of the disease than in other states; Rhode Island, for instance, has just 200 herds and could retain its Accredited-Free status if one herd were infected.

The report says single cases of TB were found in North Dakota, Kansas and California between 1996 and 2000. All of those states--with a combined herd count of about 71,700--retained Accredited-Free status.

TAHC says other numbers also will hit hard in Texas--the cost of testing and the potential for lost income from slowed sales. USDA projects losses of as much as $2.8 billion by 2013 for Texas producers.

The immediate concern for Texas breeding cattle producers is the testing requirement.

"It's going to be pretty burdensome," says Matt Brockman, TSCRA's executive director. "The test alone is going to run probably four or five dollars per head. Tack on the labor cost and it's going to multiply that cost three or four times per head."

According to TAHC, Texas exports about 150,000 breeding cattle each year, so testing costs will mount quickly. Add to that the time necessary to conduct tests, and testing becomes a real burden.

"By the time you get the animals, run them through the chute, inject the tuberculin and then turn them out again for 72 hours, gather them again and run them through to check for swelling, it adds up in a hurry," Brockman says.

Good news, not too soon
Though the June 2002 restrictions did not specifically include feeder cattle--cattle native to the state, raised for slaughter and not intended for breeding--the USDA loss projections included both breeder and feeder cattle, and feeder producers expressed concern about being included. Texas producers export nearly 1.5 million head of feeder cattle per year.

In response to such concerns, in late November 2002, the USDA and APHIS announced they would take steps by January 2003 to officially exclude feeder cattle from the current Texas restrictions until at least September 2003. The delay gives the USDA more time to consider if Texas feeder cattle pose a TB-transmission threat to cattle in other states.

Dr. Dan Baca, TAHC's epidemiologist, says that risk is incredibly low, citing TAHC statistics indicating that, at worst, the incidence of TB in Texas feeder cattle is probably less than one in a million.

Baca says feeder cattle make up the bulk of the Texas cattle export industry and restrictions on them account for a large part of the USDA's projected losses. He says he wishes there were no restrictions placed on any Texas cattle, but the delay and further study of feeder cattle is exactly what TAHC and the industry were after.

"We probably got everything we asked for," he says.

Ross Wilson, vice president of the Texas Cattle Feeders Association, which represents cattle-feeding interests in Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma, a $5 billion industry, says it's a step in the right direction.

"It's certainly a positive decision, and we feel it's the right decision because it reflects the low risk that native, Texas cattle pose to out-of-state cattle," Wilson says. "We feel [the risk] is insignificant at best."

The southern front
Another front of the ongoing TB-eradication war is along the border with Mexico. According to Baca, cattle have been legally imported from Mexico since the 1950s, and imports from both Mexico and Canada help meet export contracts for all parties involved. Such imports undoubtedly have been aided by the North American Free Trade Agreement.

But the number of Mexican cattle imported into the U.S. has varied wildly in recent years due to economic and climatic factors. In 1995, extreme drought and economic instability in Mexico led Mexican producers to sell off a record 1.6 million head. This left available cattle numbers low in the following year, when Mexican producers exported only slightly more than 450,000 head to the U.S. In 2000, Mexico exported more than 1.2 million head to the U.S.

In its July 7, 2002 report, TAHC says the presence of bovine TB in Mexican cattle has been well-documented for more than 20 years. APHIS statistics for fiscal 2001 indicate that of 66 feeder cattle found with TB at U.S. slaughter facilities, 63 were of Mexican origin.

"Everyone in the industry that follows this readily recognizes the greatest risk comes from our neighbors to the south," TSCRA's Brockman says. This recognition has led to strict USDA regulations for Mexican cattle coming into the U.S.

As of April 2002, all imported Mexican cattle must have a blue ear tag carrying the name of its state of origin along with a certificate with the same information. They are inspected for live ticks at the border and must have an "M" brand--for Mexico--on the hip. Mexican feeder cattle from the Yucatan, a portion of Coahuila that borders Texas and certain areas of Sonora, Aguascalientes and Jalisco also must have a negative TB-skin test.

Baca says battling TB is an important yet arduous task, because it can be a long investigative process as well as a delicate one calling for diplomacy.

"We expend considerable resources trying to find out how they became infected and search for other cows that have been sold out of that herd," Baca says. "We walk a fine line between protecting interests of the Texas cattle industry and interfering with free trade between two countries."

Clint Shields