Facilities, labor a concern in brucellosis testingWritten by Christy Hemken
Currently sale barns in Wyoming are required to have a vet present to take a blood test for brucellosis on all cows – bred or open – upon change of ownership. However, many auction managers say that testing all cows is unnecessary and is a waste of money and labor, given that many of the cattle originate in no-risk areas.
Although it’s controversial, they suggest that required testing should be reduced to cows originating in the areas of western Wyoming that continue under brucellosis surveillance.
“The testing has become a huge project and the investment is not only in equipment, but the biggest thing is the amount of manpower and time it takes to test all the cows that move through our sale barn,” says Shawn Madden of Torrington Livestock Markets. He says last summer Torrington Livestock installed $150,000 worth of new facilities now used primarily for brucellosis testing.
“We’ve hired a lot more people to handle it, and some days we have to bleed 2,000 cows in 24 hours,” explains Madden. “Certainly the Wyoming Livestock Board (WLSB) needs to do something if they’re going to continue as they are, but I think they need to test fewer cows, because we test a lot of cows that are basically no risk.”
WLSB Director Jim Schwartz says the sale barn testing requirements may be changed to include testing those cattle only from within the surveillance area. “Right now we’re testing lots of cattle with little or no risk and it’s costing us lots of money.”
Madden says that even with the new facility his crew still runs two vet chutes to get all the cattle done. “It takes a lot of facilities and people, and they work a lot of hours. On a typical Friday two crews do the testing and they get done between one and two a.m.”
“The money helps,” says Jeff Brown of Riverton Livestock, speaking of the current $3.50 per test that gets paid to the vets and the proposed dollar or two per head raise that would be directed to the sale barns. “But really, the problem is testing all these open cows that we’ve tested for three years and found not one positive case. The funding is wonderful, but there’s a lot more to it than that.”
Brown says that increased insurance, facilities and labor costs are also factored into the required tests. “It’s a major amount of work week after week and it’s tough to pull it off.”
“We’ve worn out what we’ve got for facilities,” he says, adding, “The state has used our facilities at no charge from us or even cost to the producers.”
Originally cut by Governor Freudenthal but then been put back in the budget by the Appropriation Committee, Schwartz says they’re working to try to be able to pay the sale barns for the rental of their equipment to do the tests.
Brown says he thinks part of the problem occurs in the amount of double testing. “A lot of these cows are tested here and at slaughter, and we’re already testing at a higher rate due to the drought and the amount of cows going through sales.
“Ideally, we would quit bleeding all cows and just bleed the bred cows, because all slaughter cows get tested at the kill plant, and if they find a positive you can be sure we’ll hear about it. We do a lot of work that seems repetitive and we go through major amounts of labor, money and wear and tear every week to accomplish that.”
Brown says that because the bred cows are going through the chute anyway it’s not a big deal to draw samples on them.
Currently USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) funds the brucellosis testing at slaughterhouses. “APHIS doesn’t give us the number of Wyoming cattle they test that are clean, but if they find a suspect they sure let us know,” says Schwartz.
“The reason we require testing of open cows is that there’s no guarantee that all open cattle are going from the sale barn to slaughter,” says Schwartz. “Sometimes people think they’ll get an extra calf or two out of a cow so they take her back to the country. It has created a lot of double testing, which we’d like to see eliminated.”
In addition to facilities use, Brown says there’s additional shrink to the livestock, which is a big cost to the producer. “Any time you handle cows that much you’re going to have your share of shrink and cripples, which costs both the producer and us, with higher insurance premiums. It costs us all the way around.” He says it’s also affected their workman’s compensation because it’s hard on their employees.
Brown says he thinks it’s unfair for Riverton Livestock to be expected to carry extra responsibility in regard to testing for brucellosis. “If we have cows in the ‘hot counties’ that we know are running with infected wildlife, I don’t care where they go to be marketed, they need to be tested.”
“All we are is a marketing tool for producers, and we’re not trying to be a part of any kind of legislation to promote or not promote the bleeding of these cows,” says Brown, adding, “We’ll help the producers do whatever they need to in order to protect the industry.”
“Testing should be reduced to continued testing from the higher-risk areas and we should quit testing cows that come out of areas where there’s very little or no risk,” concludes Madden.
Schwartz adds that at the sale barn the $3.50 per head paid to the vet covers his costs, but when a vet is required to test 30 cattle in a remote area, the payment doesn’t even cover the mileage. “We have to have some flexibility to raise that price for those small numbers.”
“When there’s a high population of infectious wildlife that means we’ll be testing for a very long time because we have not cleaned up the wildlife. Our number one priority needs to be a better vaccine for both our livestock and the wildlife,” says Schwartz. “In cattle the current vaccine is only 60 or 70 percent effective, so that’s not a guarantee by a long shot.”
“The day needs to come where the WLSB can help producers put in feeders or fence off their hay meadows, and that’s where we’ll make a huge difference and it’s critical to our overall plan,” he says.
In a statement released following the U.S. achievement of brucellosis class free status in cattle, Senator Mike Enzi agreed, saying, “The Wyoming agriculture community and state agencies worked together in 2006 to get Wyoming’s brucellosis class free status in cattle. I am pleased all states have followed suit. However, there is still work to be done to eradicate brucellosis from our free roaming elk herds. Efforts should include developing a more advanced vaccine and improved management in areas of greatest risk for the disease to be passed between wildlife and livestock.”