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Officials: Not quite a TB 'outbreak'

THIEF RIVER FALLS, Minn. - Minnesota animal health officials are hoping to persuade federal authorities to define the area where bovine tuberculosis has been found in 11 cattle herds as a relatively small region.

THIEF RIVER FALLS, Minn. - Minnesota animal health officials are hoping to persuade federal authorities to define the area where bovine tuberculosis has been found in 11 cattle herds as a relatively small region.

State and federal animal health experts, led by Bill Hartmann, state veterinarian and executive director of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, have been meeting with cattle owners at four meetings across the state. A fifth meeting, in Pipestone, Minn., had to be canceled because of bad weather.

Just two weeks ago, an 11th herd was found to include animals infected with TB. Because that was the fourth herd since October to be found with TB-infected animals, it triggered a regulation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to lower the state's TB-status. And that will cost cattle producers in testing and marketing restrictions, Hartmann says.

A silver lining

But there's some good news since TB first was discovered in a herd near Skime, Minn., in early 2005, Hartmann says.

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The 11 herds that each include at least one animal that tested positive for TB are in a relatively small area, along a straight line stretching from a few miles north of Salol, Minn., in north-central Roseau County, to about 34 miles south to a mile or so beyond Grygla, Minn., in northwestern Beltrami County.

And it's an even smaller area within that locus where 17 wild deer have been found, in the past three years, with TB infection. So it's not quite accurate to refer to this as an "outbreak," of TB, Hartmann emphasizes, because two years and more of testing has shown the disease hasn't "broken out" or been found anywhere else in Minnesota.

"We've just spent the last two years proving there is no TB in the rest of the state," Hartmann says, citing the testing of several hundred herds across Minnesota.

Feeling the falloutBut the effects of finding TB in the 11 herds already are being felt.

North Dakota animal health officials have ruled that any cattle - or bison, goats or deer or elk - being transported from Minnesota into North Dakota must first be tested and shown to be TB-free.

The North Dakota rule is slightly stricter than the expected USDA ruling - coming perhaps in a week or two - that will downgrade Minnesota's TB status from "modified accredited advanced (MAA) to "modified accredited," or MA. MAA is the second-lowest status of five USDA categories; the first is TB-free, which Minnesota had been since 1971. MA is the third step and will require more testing of animals before they can be sold out of state.

Hartmann is urging producers to contact their local vet before shipping any animals out of state to make sure they are in compliance with state and federal rules.

Testing for TB generally costs about $10 per animal, plus a vet's fee. But half of the cost can be deducted from state income taxes, and the other half can be listed as an expense on federal taxes.

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As an owner of the Sandhills Ranch near Winger, Minn., Chad Carlson raises replacement heifers for dairy farms in three states. It means a constant dance between milking, breeding and calving that involves transporting animals, sometimes more than once, across state lines.

Federal and state regulations just aren't up to date with the mobility of modern livestock production, Hartmann says.

Source unknownAll 11 herds found to include TB-infected animals so far have been beef herds, not dairy cattle. That may be in part because dairy herds tend to be more confined, more watched and fussed over than beef cattle, Carlson and others say.

It's not clear yet where the TB came from that infected the 11 herds, except it's been shown to not be the same strain as that found in Manitoba or in Michigan, Hartmann says. It's similar to TB strains found in the southwestern United States, but the source of the TB has not been determined, he says.

It's not clear yet if cattle infected the deer, or vice versa, although the betting money is that cattle started it, because they are transported and cover more ground than wild deer, says Sherry Shaw, a USDA veterinarian who is working this problem.

Producers obviously are concerned. About 250 livestock owners attended a Feb. 27 meeting in Thief River Falls, Minn. The night before, about 450 showed up for a similar meeting in Grygla, Minn., a town of about 200, Hartmann says.

There is little risk to human health from this bovine TB, because of the inspection system in place, the fact it doesn't really lodge in the "muscle cuts," of meat eaten by people and because normal cooking kills the bacteria, Hartmann says. But a century of American agriculture's work in nearly eradicating the disease - which was a problem in the early 20th century - can't be forgotten.

It has national implications, he says, citing a recent case of a dairy herd in California found to have TB-infected animals.

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Michigan has had a larger TB outbreak problem for 12 years in cattle in a certain region of the state and much larger infection problem in wild deer.

Michelle Carstensen of the state's DNR, says professional USDA sharpshooters began two weeks ago killing deer, similarly to a year ago.

"Already they have shot 80 deer," she says. "They will continue until after Easter."

Split-state strategyHartmann and other state animal health experts are proposing to USDA that a "split-state" strategy be used. That is, nearly all of Minnesota could retain the MAA status, while a relatively small area of eastern Kittson County, most of Roseau County, western Lake of the Woods County, northeast Marshall County and northwest Beltrami County be designated as the more restricted MA status.

That will allow state and federal officials to focus the limited resources on the area where TB has been found, Hartmann says.

It's still not clear if the USDA will accept that proposal, or go with an earlier idea to declare the TB zone as large as nine counties in northwest Minnesota, Hartmann says.

If the entire state was downgraded to MA status, there aren't enough veterinarians to do all the testing that would be required before animals could be transported, Hartmann says.

If the state is downgraded to the fourth status level of USDA's five-step system, the state's commercial cattle industry essentially would be stopped in its tracks, Hartmann warns. He doesn't think that is going to happen, partly because of how geographically proximate the TB infections found so far have been.

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