Researchers explore economic feasibility of brucellosis management techniquesWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Jackson – As an economist, Dannele Peck guides her brucellosis research by asking how economically acceptable the prevalence of the disease is in a given area. The goal, she maintains, is to determine which combination of management tools will achieve and maintain an optimal level as cheaply as possible.
“To do that, we have to figure out how costly the disease is, how costly the potential management tools are and how effective they are,” stated Peck, a University of Wyoming associate professor in the Department of Agriculture and Applied Economics, at the Sept. 16 meeting of a National Academy of Sciences committee reviewing brucellosis in the Greater Yellowstone Area (GYA).
Peck added that disease managers should also consider whether efforts are focused on elk or cattle and what factors may affect the spread of the disease.
“How costly is a case of brucellosis in a cattle herd?” she asked. “As a good economist, I will say that it depends.”
The size of the herd, the number of affected animals, the need for depopulation versus quarantine and the timeline for quarantine are all factors that can affect the cost of an outbreak.
Evaluating an outbreak
Using some averages and assumptions, Peck and her team estimated that a brucellosis outbreak would cost approximately $192 per head over a 12-month period.
“We have to understand how costly our management activities are,” she continued. “We don’t want to spend $15,000 to solve a $14,000 problem.”
To evaluate various management techniques, Peck and her team of graduate students determined the annualized costs of certain tools and compared them to the financial loss of a brucellosis outbreak.
Citing an example data set for a high-risk herd, Peck commented, “Something like an adult booster vaccination is cheap enough that it doesn’t have to very effective to be worthwhile. It only needs to eliminate five percent of the cost of an outbreak to pay for itself.”
In the same example, delayed grazing would have to be so effective that it eliminated an impossible 104 percent of the brucellosis cost.
Therefore, she concluded that a vaccination may be a potential solution, but delayed grazing would not be economically beneficial in that situation.
Value of tools
“When we have lower risk and there is less at stake, we are not going to be willing to invest as much in brucellosis management,” Peck continued.
Fencing haystacks, asking the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to haze elk and using adult booster vaccinations may still have some value in high-risk herds, while spaying heifers, using alternative feed schedules and hiring a rider to haze elk may become less economically viable when risk is reduced.
To compare finances for investing in particular tools, Peck remarked, “We could put that money away each year so by the time an outbreak hits, we have saved up the difference.”
Along with more typical management tools, Peck’s team also investigated fencing winter feedgrounds and running stocker operations.
Due to high labor costs, Peck stated, “Elk-proof fencing costs $95,000 to $100,000 per mile.”
Fencing also raises other concerns about neighboring operations and important wildlife migration routes.
“What if we got rid of reproductive cattle in the GYA?” questioned Peck.
Her team revealed that stockers are generally 50 percent less profitable than cow/calf/yearling operations.
“We would be asking producers to trade their brucellosis risk problem for what is probably a much larger financial risk problem. Producers are managing many other sources of risk,” she said.
The cost of a brucellosis outbreak and the costs of management tools vary by ranch, by year and by prices.
“It’s a very individualized situation. If we know the characteristics of a ranch, we can help narrow down the list of tools that might be economically worthwhile,” she remarked.
Researchers are learning more about how brucellosis is spread and what management tools may be effective, but Peck emphasizes the financial constraints of producers.
“We can’t forget our major economic questions,” she said.