If you own cattle in Michigan, two of the worst words to hear are TB-positive. In March, bovine TB was discovered in a 100-plus head Saginaw dairy farm. Lesions, which are indicative of the infection, were discovered at slaughter.
Any farm that's designed TB-positive is a concern, but it becomes extraordinary when it's outside of what's considered the TB core area of northeast Lower Michigan. Unfortunately, the bad news doesn't end there. On May 3, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development announced that deacon calves purchased from the TB-positive Saginaw County farm (now referred to as the index farm), and traced to two small beef farms in Midland and Gratiot Counties, are also TB positive.
Two infected animals were removed from the Gratiot herd and one from the Midland herd.
All these herds are now quarantined and MDARD has established a 10-mile radius around each positive farm where all cattle herds will need to be tested with a goal of getting it done in six months. The department has also started traces from all the farms.
I had lots of questions for MDARD staff, but they had few answers at this point, saying it could not discuss specifics that might interfere with the investigation.
Regardless, this situation could be very bad news for cattle and dairy producers in the current TB-Free zone in Lower Michigan. It's unclear if this discovery will result in a downgrade in status. MDARD has asked USDA Veterinary Services to allow the state to conduct its disease investigation, get things under control, and after it's over, will sit down to discuss status issues.
Depending on what USDA comes back with, we may be looking at whole herd testing, again, for much of the state. Animals have been traced out of state, TB status unknown, to Ohio and Indiana. It is unclear as to how those states will react.
Here's some additional facts I was able to glean out of MDARD:
•The caudal fold response rate in the Saginaw herd was 17% with the actual rate of infection based on the histopathology being 12%, which is quite high.
•USDA and the Saginaw County farm owner are in discussions about indemnity. The farm will be depopulated once that is worked out.
•Within that 10-mile radius of the index farm, there is a goal to test 300 deer within the next three years – the bulk to be tested during the regular hunting season.
•To date there have been 88 deer tested within a two mile circle of the index farm. No deer have been found positive thus far.
•There are 65 farms that will need to be whole-herd tested around the index farm. Another 55 have been added since the Midland and Gratiot discoveries.
•Deer will be removed from the positive farms with disease control permits and tested, as well as deer taken during the hunting season.
Michigan Farm Bureau continues to contend that the effort to get a handle on this disease issue has been muddled with social and political wills allowing only for management rather than eradication of bovine TB. Ernie Birchmeier, MFB livestock specialist says, "Regardless of where we have TB, we will not fix the problem until we address the real problem. We have a wildlife problem in Michigan that we know is harboring the disease. We have a wildlife reservoir that has to be dealt with. Unfortunately it has become socially acceptable for the disease to live in the wildlife population, while we continue to depopulate our farms. People don't want to see less deer, they want more. That has come at a tremendous cost to farmers and the state. Even so, farmers have been cooperative."
While MDARD would not confirm it, there have been some reports of problems tracing animals because they were not properly identified. "We have a rule in Michigan that all beef or dairy cattle leaving the farm need to have electronic ID," Birchmeier says. "It's important farmers follow those rules to be able to trace animals quickly when a disease issue does arise."
Birchmeier says he has no idea what USDA will decide as the next course of action for Michigan. Whatever it may be, it probably won't be quick. "We're still asking for USDA to publish the new rule on TB for the entire U.S., which would allow for a different way of managing bovine TB. Right now we're operating under rules that are 80 years old," he says. "USDA held listening sessions back in 2009 and Michigan had input into the new rule. We were told it would be published in 12 to 14 months… we still don't have a rule."
So bottom line is, strap yourself in, this could be a bumpy ride. How this disease made its way so far out of the TB-infected area and what's in the future for cattle and dairy producers are still the mystery questions.