May 08, 2012

Texas Cattle Still Healthy Despite Budget Cuts to Health Commission

Cattle graze on a small farm near Marble Falls in Burnet County. The Texas Department of Animal Health and Texas ranchers braved drought conditions and budget cuts and kept Texas' cattle herds largely disease-free the past year. Photo by David Barer.

By David Barer
For Reporting Texas

The job of keeping Texas’ cattle industry healthy and vibrant just got more difficult. In the past year, ranchers and state veterinary authorities have battled the worst drought in decades only to absorb massive a cutback in state funds to fight disease and maintain livestock health.

And while Texas hasn’t had a serious outbreak of livestock disease in decades, cattle cognoscenti warn it may get harder to protect state herds from illnesses that still threaten many parts of the world.

“Having to lay off the number of people we did… the vast number of animals going through our livestock markets, increased workload — yeah, the last year was a pretty tough year for us,” said Terry Hensley, an assistant state veterinarian of health programs and emergency management at the Texas Animal Health Commission.

Texas, home to ranching since the late 1600s, leads the nation in cattle production, posting revenues of $7.6 billion in 2010, according to figures from the Texas Department of Agriculture. The last major cattle epidemic in the state was a series of hoof and mouth outbreaks ending in 1929, which laid waste to more than 100,000 head of cattle. Since then, a systematic approach to testing and vaccination has nearly eradicated deadly diseases from American herds, including brucellosis, a highly contagious bacterial disease that causes miscarriages and renders beef inedible, and tuberculosis.

Cases of brucellosis do still affect the wild buffalo in Yellowstone National Park, but hoof and mouth has been eliminated in this country. Screwworm has been wiped out all the way south to the Isthmus of Panama, where the United States still releases sterile flies to stymie a return.

But the threat of a serious contagion remains a concern. In April, a single case of mad cow disease discovered in California caught the attention of Texas ranchers and health officials. Texas Agricultural Commissioner Todd Staples said in a press release that Texas cattle are safe and the infected cow was never destined for the nation’s food supply.

Hensley hopes the 29 percent cut to the commission’s general revenue fund (from $13.4 million to $9.5 million), which is a major portion of the commission’s yearly budget, won’t reverse the progress that has been made. However, he does worry about one program that was scrapped: mandatory testing for brucellosis at cattle auctions. There are more than 130 cattle auction houses listed on the Texas Department of Agriculture’s website, with most convening once a week.

“I think it’s still very good that some cattle auctions are still testing cattle that come through,” said Joe Parker, president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. “That self-testing is the best thing that producers and the industry can do.”

Now, because it’s done voluntarily, many cattle auctions don’t test at all for brucellosis because of the extra costs. Health commission officials would have preferred the testing to continue.

“We probably wouldn’t have stopped [testing] if the money was still there,” Hensley said. “We would have liked one more year.”

While it’s been 80 years since hoof and mouth ravaged the United States and just four since brucellosis was all but eradicated, livestock diseases still rage in other parts of the world, causing incalculable financial damage. Egypt is currently experiencing an epidemic of hoof and mouth, with more than 100,000 infections reported. Areas of South America — Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina — also identify cases of hoof and mouth every year. Closer to home, Mexico has had consistent tuberculosis outbreaks for decades. The globalization of the meat market means health authorities and ranchers must keep a close eye on international diseases and beef product importation.

“A true hoof and mouth outbreak starting in southern Texas scares the hell out of us,” said Pete Bonds, a rancher and cattle producer in Saginaw.

Bonds, who has been ranching and raising cattle his entire life, remembers as a boy doctoring calves’ navels for screwworms. The parents of Bonds’ close friend met during the hoof and mouth outbreak in the late 1920s and showed him pictures of the devastating effects. “It was gory,” said Bonds.

The hoof and mouth virus spreads so quickly that once it’s detected in a herd, it has probably already spread. The disease spreads particularly fast in swine. With Texas’ large feral hog population, ranchers and authorities fear a quarantine to stop the disease would be futile, since they have little control of the wild hogs roaming the state.

Going forward, the animal health commission has adequate funding to maintain sufficient levels of testing, administration and research for Texas cattle, Hensley said, but a severe disease outbreak would tax the commission to the limit.

“We don’t know what the next disease is going to be,” Hensley said. “We need to have enough people on the ground that can respond to these outbreaks. A lot of it will revolve around funding, and money is short.”