Protecting livestock from disease is an important job

Mychal Wilmes reflects on "metal illness" and other things that can hurt livestock and the livestock industry.

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Preventing all manners of health problems in livestock is important to individual producers and the industry. Photo taken Jan. 13, 2017, at Good-Vue Ayr Farms in Goodridge, Minnesota.
Nick Nelson / Agweek file photo
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It seemed that a cow or yearling would be lost every year to “metal sickness” — a painfully slow illness caused by an animal digesting wire or other iron material.

When an animal lost weight and was listless, the veterinarian — a big fellow with a kind disposition who tapped trees in spring to make maple syrup — was called. A magnet was administrated to the animal in hopes that it would capture the metal material.

The treatment never worked, and the animal faded away until it died.

Iron shards, Dad said, were digested through the pea silage that were purchased from the canning company. The vines were stacked and packed at a location not far from our farmstead. Farmers could purchase a square in the pile, and using pitchforks fill a pickup with silage to extend forage supplies in winter. The vines were frozen, but still smelled like peas.

A milk cow that had been in the herd more than a dozen years, and so highly thought of that it would never be marketed, was diagnosed with metal poisoning. She lingered for a long time before the end came.


The rendering company was called. While waiting for the truck and its driver to arrive, we agreed that picking up dead animals was about the worst job imaginable.

The cow’s loss hit me hard because she was so gentle. The tears that fell were hidden as best possible until the truck arrived.

Nonetheless — although he carried death smell on him — the driver was happy and talked while the cow was pulled into the truck. All in all, he said, rendering animals beat wearing a suit and tie, and being on the road equaled freedom.

The rendering business was important because it was contained in various amounts in all animal feed.

A study conducted several years ago found that 7.9 million pounds of bone meal, blood meal and feather meal was produced by U.S. rendering plants annually. Twelve percent of rendered product was used in dairy and beef feed, 34% in poultry feed, and 20% in pig feed.

An uncle who owned a small dairy herd in the 1960s saw his milking career end when the herd tested positive for tuberculosis. If my memory is correct, the animals were killed and buried in a deep pit on his farm. Prior to the 1950s, bovine tuberculosis caused more livestock losses than all other diseases combined. An intensive U.S. Department of Agriculture testing program all but eliminated the disease by the 1960s. The disease remains a threat in Mexico and other places around the globe.

The USDA and state ag departments have created contingency plans should dangerous and infectious diseases crop up in the United States. Bird flu, which hit poultry producers hard and forced hundreds of thousands of birds to be liquidated, is a current example.

Great Britain’s livestock industry lost billions of dollars to a foot and mouth disease outbreak that affected the entire nation. African swine fever is a worldwide worry and there are others.


After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that felled the World Trade Center and killed more than 1,000 people, the possibility that terrorists would use airplanes and other means to deliberately infect U.S. livestock and poultry with deadly diseases caused concern among health officials. If such an attack occurred, it might inflict billions in farm losses and threaten the entire food supply.

The United States has long worried about a widespread disease outbreak. The Plum Island Animal Disease Center, located on an island off the New York coast, had a mission to study foreign animal diseases. During the Cold War with the Soviet Union, it created a secret biological weapons program targeting livestock. The program was ended by President Richard Nixon in 1969.

The Plum Island center moved to Manhattan, Kansas, in 2014.

The move was controversial, given that diseases could accidentally be released close to the centers of livestock production. The National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility has operated in Kansas without incident.

Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minnesota, with his wife, Kathy.

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