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Published August 27, 2009, 06:46 AM

Bovine TB creates more hassles than losses for cattle ranchers

Nebraska and Texas are investigating positive cases of bovine tuberculosis to determine whether there has been an outbreak of the disease already confirmed in California, Minnesota (where it was found in northwest Minnesota), Michigan and New Mexico. The disease is considered untreatable in cattle, so both infected and uninfected animals in a herd usually are killed when bovine tuberculosis is found.

By: Associated Press,

OMAHA, Neb.

Bovine tuberculosis has created costly problems for the cattle industry in states where the disease has appeared, but it appears to be a manageable threat.

Nebraska and Texas are investigating positive cases of bovine tuberculosis to determine whether there has been an outbreak of the disease already confirmed in California, Minnesota, Michigan and New Mexico. The disease is considered untreatable in cattle, so both infected and uninfected animals in a herd usually are killed when bovine tuberculosis is found.

But cattlemen and others say few cases have been confirmed and the disease is proving more of a nuisance than a real threat to their roughly $60 billion industry.

"The fear and the phobia that's been caused by all of this has been much more damaging than anything to do with the disease," said Bim Nelson, who runs Bassett Livestock Auction in north-central Nebraska, where two cases of the disease were found in one herd.

For cattlemen in states where the disease is present, the biggest problem related to bovine tuberculosis is the cost and hassle of testing cattle before they are shipped over state lines. On average, testing adds $5 to $15 per head to the cattle industry's costs.

"From a total-industry standpoint, it's a nuisance issue," said Tom Talbot, president of the California Cattlemen trade group. "But for some producers, it's a major problem."

Still, Nebraska would prefer to keep its official tuberculosis-free designation to avoid additional testing requirements. It has tested 10,500 cattle since June with no new cases found. While an additional 6,000 to 7,000 cattle must be tested before the state can be cleared, most in the state are optimistic.

"I feel better than I did two months ago," Nebraska state veterinarian Dennis Hughes said.

The infected herd in Nebraska has yet to be slaughtered, and 22 other herds remain quarantined pending testing.

In states where the disease has been around longer, cattlemen say the goal should be to contain it, not eliminate it, and they hope to persuade the U.S. Department of Agriculture to change its approach and update the decades-old rules that govern the agency's response to bovine tuberculosis.

The cattlemen say eradication is impossible given the bacteria's presence in wildlife and cattle in other countries, particularly Mexico, but it may take years to change the regulations.

"We will not eradicate this disease, but we can get it under control," said Bill Van Dam of the Western Milk Producers, which represents 60 percent of the milk production in California.

Bovine tuberculosis causes severe coughing, fatigue, emaciation and debilitation in cattle and results in reduced milk and meat production. Spread by nose-to-nose contact and the inhalation of bacteria, it usually progresses slowly.

Humans can catch the disease from contact with infected cattle, but that's rare. As long as meat is properly cooked and milk pasteurized, experts agree there is little danger of bovine tuberculosis spreading through food.

California, Michigan, Minnesota and New Mexico face federal restrictions because of outbreaks of bovine tuberculosis. Shipments of cattle across state lines are delayed at least 72 hours so the animals can be tested. If a test comes back positive, the animals must be retested.

"It really slows down commerce," Talbot said.

Minnesota created a tax credit to reimburse its ranchers 50 percent of the cost of the additional testing required because officials worried about the burden on the cattle business, said Ted Radintz, with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. The state exports 200,000 to 300,000 cattle each year because it doesn't have feedlot space for them all, so the cost of testing "was a great concern," Radintz said.

The fight against bovine tuberculosis began in the 1920s when it was the most economically devastating animal disease in the nation. After decades of testing and the slaughter of infected animals, less than 0.1 percent of cattle were infected in 1952.

The recent increase in cases is partly because agriculture officials increased screening at slaughter starting in 2005, said Cindy Ragin, spokeswoman for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Since 2004, bovine tuberculosis has been found in 39 cattle herds and nine deer or elk herds in 13 different states.

Nebraska rancher Jay Stewart's cattle were quarantined after coming in contact with the infected herd there. But he's less worried after learning more about the disease and its spread, he said, and all of his 1,090 animals tested disease free.

"People have learned that it's a minute worry that they're going to find another one" in Nebraska, Stewart said.

Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. The information contained in the AP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press.

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