Why don’t we get rid of all the cattle in the tuberculosis area?

Perceived solutions to the bovine TB problem come with apparent downsides.

It’s what some have proposed; buy-out all the cattle farms in the bovine tuberculosis (TB) area and then perhaps there won’t be a problem with TB. The current TB program of evaluating risk on farms, monitoring the movement of animals in and out of the zone, testing herds, buying cattle that react on a test to slaughter and find out if they are infected, is costly. Yet, even with that expense, there are still two-to-four new infected herds identified every year.

Why not buy out the herds as a one-time expense and eliminate the annual cost of this program? Even though this solution may be discussed, what you’ll find when you get to know the area and the people, are the apparent downsides to such an approach.

It won’t solve the problem.

It seems that some have forgotten the problem at the heart of bovine TB in Michigan – White-tailed deer are carriers of the disease and the primary vector introducing it to other species. Bovine TB would continue to put the health of Michigan’s deer herd and other TB hosts, including humans, at risk regardless of cattle being present. In fact, removing cattle from the landscape could make things worse.

The disease may increase in deer.

Without the impetus to keep this disease out of cattle herds, there would likely be no urgency to thin the deer herd and slow the spread of TB among deer. It’s likely the deer herd would increase in density, with disease prevalence increasing accordingly, which has occurred over the last year.

It would shut down multi-generational businesses.

Another critical are of concern is the economic effect on families involved in raising cattle and milking dairy herds in Northeast Michigan. These families have invested their lives in the business and made many changes to mitigate TB risk. Raising cattle is their livelihood, or a supplement to it, in an area of the state better suited to forage and livestock production than cash crop production. Eliminating cattle from the TB zone would unduly penalize people those have worked hard to be a part of the solution, and who have long been a part of the community.

It would affect the entire agriculture value chain.

Farms depend on service providers, who in turn depend on the business generated by farms to build a thriving agricultural economy. Milk haulers, livestock haulers, veterinarians, feed mills and more may close with the loss of business caused by a large scale cattle buy-out, or charge higher fees in order to service the few farms remaining outside the zone. Both dairy and beef cattle operations also bring money into the community from outside the area. A rule of thumb is that every 250 dairy cows generates $1 million in income every year that is spent locally on labor, supplies, feed, equipment, vehicles, appliances and more. Taking that money out of the local economy would increase the risk that many more businesses could fail.

It would be a short-sighted solution, undercutting the future of agriculture.

A large-scale cattle buy-out in the TB zone would devalue everything that has been done and all that has been learned about mitigating TB risk. It is “one-size fits all” at its worst; a short-term fix that fails to recognize the positive steps many herd owners have taken, discounting the possibility of future innovation and progress in disease management/eradication. Worse yet, a buy-out would be a direct affront to the independence that American farmers hold dear. Why work together to solve complex challenges that our industry may face in the future if we expect the government to step in and take such action?

In summary, the simplistic “solution” of eliminating cattle in the TB zone would do nothing to control the disease, but would result in negative consequences for everyone within the zone and throughout the surrounding area. The possible unintended consequences are greater than some have thought. If eliminating cattle in the TB zone is not the answer, what is? How do we find our way out of this seemingly endless cycle of expense, pain and uncertainty? This will be the topic of a future article. However, short-term, simplistic solutions that may appear to be an adequate solution, yet fail to account for the impact it may have across the economy of Northeast Michigan, should be avoided.

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