Iowa Public Television


Bovine TB Scare Rattles Nebraska Cattle Producers

posted on June 26, 2009

BASSETT, Neb. -- Two positive tests for tuberculosis in one of the most productive ranching regions in the country are nothing to fret about, Monte Strelow claims.

But the tears that well up in the burly 45-year-old rancher's eyes while children play under the wraparound porch of his home southeast of here tell a different story.

"This land has been in the family for 125 years," Strelow said.

The stoic demeanor many ranchers in this vast swath of cattle country wear to work every day is starting to show some cracks. Along the back roads that border lush meadows where cattle roam, they wonder if efforts to contain a possible outbreak of bovine tuberculosis might cripple their livelihoods.

The worry could linger for months as veterinarians travel across 10 Nebraska counties testing 42 cattle herds for the disease. The herds' 15,000 cattle have been quarantined because they may have had fence-line contact with the infected herd or include animals bought from another quarantined herd.

Nebraska officials say they expect the number of quarantined herds to increase and that other states could also be affected.

"This may only be the tip of the iceberg, and if it is, we have a problem here," rancher Neil Ammon said as he stood in his stocking feet outside his modest house northeast of Bassett. Ammon, whose herd is among the quarantined, recently met with his bankers to discuss how the lockdown might affect his finances.

"All they did was shrug, it was just a blank look," he said.

The man whose herd is responsible for the tuberculosis scare that threatens the state's TB-free status, which is used to help market Nebraska cattle, fears he's scarred the image of a ranch-heavy region in the top beef-producing state in the country. Much of the land holding quarantined herds is in north-central Nebraska and straddles the Sandhills region, whose grass-covered rolling hills are nationally known as prime ranching country.

Some ranchers worry that buyers could use TB fears to lower prices they pay for cattle and that their bank accounts will take a hit if the issue isn't cleared up by fall, when the calves of now-quarantined herds normally would go up for sale.

None of the cattle in the quarantined herds can be sold unless owners obtain a special permit for immediate slaughter.

"It's hard on the whole damn industry," said Ben Fischer, whose herd contained two cattle with tuberculosis, which federal inspectors discovered during routine tests at a slaughterhouse last month.

Fischer declined to answer detailed questions from The Associated Press about the quarantine.

"It's a situation where it's not as big as it's blown up to be," he said. "To have nose-to-nose contact, you have to pretty near French kiss the cows to get it to transfer."

In a letter late last week to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman and state Ag Director Greg Ibach said initial tracing showed that some cattle possibly exposed to tuberculosis before the quarantine were sent to Colorado and South Dakota.

"We think it is fair to say that this is not just a Nebraska problem," the letter said.

A respiratory disease, bovine tuberculosis typically spreads from one animal to another through the inhalation of bacteria. Experts say infected animals can transmit the disease to healthy ones within several feet. Bovine TB is more commonly found in indoor facilities than in open pastures, but cattle in the open are susceptible because they commonly congregate around water or feed.

The disease also can be spread to humans, though that is rare because of the limited amount of close contact between cattle and humans.

In the early 1900s, humans caught tuberculosis from drinking unpasteurized milk from infected cattle. Because milk is now pasteurized, chances of humans contracting the disease from cattle are slim, experts say. There also is the possibility of humans catching it from undercooked meat from infected cattle, but the chances of that happening are remote because all cattle are tested for TB at slaughter, officials say.

"It's not all that contagious of a disease," said Steve Schmitt, wildlife veterinarian for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Over the past decade, about 45 cattle herds in that state have been found to have tuberculosis, but in more than half of those herds, there was just one infected animal, Schmitt said. Most other herds had just a couple of infected cattle, he said.

"It's not like catching a cold or the flu riding in an elevator where someone coughs and you get it," Schmitt said.

Altogether, more than 99 percent of the nation's cattle remain unaffected by bovine TB, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

There have been several incidents in recent years that led the USDA to remove the bovine TB-free designation from parts of California, Michigan, Minnesota and New Mexico. Besides Nebraska, Texas is investigating positive cases of the disease to determine if there is an outbreak.

Some Nebraska ranchers such as Roy Stewart say they are confident the tuberculosis scare will pass without doing permanent damage - he recalls a small outbreak in the 1980s that he said didn't affect the market much - but they are bracing for the worst.

The herd he keeps along with his son, Jay Stewart, is among those that were quarantined.

"This could really hurt the image of this whole area," the elder Stewart said.

Tags: agriculture animals beef cattle diseases food safety livestock meat Nebraska news