October 20, 2006
By Bobby Horecka
They worked four long years to accomplish it, but the goal of regaining Texas' tuberculosis (TB)-free status became reality in early October.
"It's a program we have been working hard to obtain," said Dr. Bud Aldredge, a veterinarian and cattle producer from Sweetwater. "It really culminated from a lot of work by lot of people, and it will be a great benefit to Texas cattlemen and dairymen."
For veterinarians like Dr. Aldredge, that meant countless tests conducted on the state's roughly 14 million head of cattle.
More than 500 veterinarians tested more than 300,000 dairy cattle located at nearly 1,000 dairies statewide, along with about 2,000 head of purebred beef cattle.
"The challenge now will be to maintain our TB-free status, and make sure no problem enters the state," Dr. Aldredge added. "And our primary concern is Mexico."
Not surprisingly, said Texas Farm Bureau Commodities and Regulatory Activities Associate Director Jon Johnson.
Thousands of Mexican cattle are imported into Texas as feeder calves each year, he says, and for many of the Mexican states exporting cattle, tuberculosis remains a big problem.
Johnson said efforts are underway between Mexico and its four border states in America to curb TB problems, but the work has been slow.
Ranchers and dairymen have basically two options when TB is found in a herdthey either depopulate or test the animals out, removing reactors to the disease as they are discovered. In America, funds from the Agriculture Department help offset the ranchers' losses by offering market value payments for the animals as they are depopulated.
Mexico, however, has no similar program, Johnson said. Many of the producers are small and cash poor, so depopulating a herd can literally wipe them out financially. And because of the funding issues, TB remains a big problem in Mexico.
Generally speaking, the TB-free status will allow Texas producers to move and trade cattle both around the state and across state boundaries without having to perform costly and time-consuming TB tests on the animals.
Cattle TB is caused by the bacterium Mycobacterim bovis, while human TB is attributed to M. tuberculosis. TB-infected cattle can develop tubercles, or encapsulated lesions in the lungs, lymph nodes or in other internal organs.
Most often, cattle TB infection is first detected at slaughter plants, where inspectors examine carcasses for tubercles, which they collect and submit for laboratory confirmation.
The state managed a TB-free status in 2000, only to have it stripped away in 2002 when two infected herds were located. Two more infected herds were detected again in 2003.
As Dr. Aldredge explained, TB is typically more pronounced in confined areas, such as dairy operations. That's why veterinarians were so focused on the dairy cattle of Texas.
Commercial beef herds often rotate so regularly that TB can't catch a firm footing within a herd. Often, too, beef cattle operations can be so vast that TB won't spread from animal to animal.
The beef cattle tested during the surveillance program were those kept for breeding purposes. Those typically remain as a herd for several months or years, and infection among those animals could become a possibility, even if the animals weren't confined.
Pete Case of El Dorado was one such rancher who didn't take any chances. He raises about 150 head of registered Herefords on his ranch in Schleicher County. As a preventative measure, he tested them all for TB last July.
The tests were no simple matter for a herd that size, Case said. He had to bring in extra help to round them all up and test them, and then, because they have to be retested again in three days, he did it all again.
No cases of the disease were found on his place, he said, but it was definitely worth the effort.
"While it's really good news we finally have TB-free status back in Texas, it's also a good time to reflect on lessons we learned and improvements on how TB is dealt with when it occurs," Case said. "I think it's a good argument for the Texas Farm Bureau position on the need for animal ID."
"A great deal of time, effort and money were expended trying to determine where these animals were from and where they shipped to after they were sold," Case said. "There's a lot to be learned there and certainly points to a need for a better trace-back system than we currently have."
According to Jon Johnson, the last infected herd found in Texas comprised just 40 head of cattle, and it took more than nine months to track them all down.
Even then, one of the animals was lost in the shift of paperwork from auction house to auction house.
The national animal ID system as proposed by USDA would provide an animal trace-back within 48 hours.
Case urged cattlemen and state and national agencies to continue due diligence in improving animal health tracking systems. He also urged ranchers obtain certified TB-free herds, where animals are tested annually, to ensure they are TB-free and not jeopardize the fragile status.
Texas' new TB-free status will also have its immediate affects.
"For cattle owners involved in regional and statewide stock shows and fairs, the benefit of TB-free status is immediate," said Dr. Bob Hillman, Texas' state veterinarian. "Achieving free status enables Texas-origin cattle to be transported to events in the state without a TB test.
A few stock shows and other states may still have stricter guidelines requiring TB tests, regardless of the status, Dr. Hillman added. He advised contacting shows and endpoint sale destinations to check on what requirements they may have.
"Keeping our cattle TB-free status now is a matter of reducing risk and disease exposure," Dr. Hillman said. "Our ranchers' ability to move cattle interstate and the credibility of Texas' cattle industry depends on achieving and maintaining freedom from diseases, such as cattle TB. For anyone who owns cattle, it means business."