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At Issue: A lot at stake for ranchers

Published (4/11/2008)
By Lee Ann Schutz
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The area of concern centers around Roseau, Marshall and Beltrami counties. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources)

With the discovery of four new cases of bovine tuberculosis in northwestern Minnesota since last fall, the federal government this week stepped in to restrict the movement of cattle, bison, goats and farm-raised deer from Minnesota to other states. The new restrictions come with the downgrade in the state’s bovine TB status. It means that feeder cattle, breeding stock and even some dairy cows will need to be tested to certify they are TB-free before being shipped out of state.

Bovine TB is a contagious and infectious disease caused by Mycobacterium bovis. It affects cattle, bison, deer, elk, goats and other warm-blooded species and can be fatal. The disease can be transmitted to humans through direct contact with infected animals or consumption of raw milk.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announcement was expected by state agriculture officials and members of the two House agriculture committees. The state is moving quickly in its efforts to quarantine the disease — but this takes money and time. And few could argue with the aggressiveness of Rep. Dave Olin (DFL-Thief River Falls) as he tries to find funds to keep the disease at bay.

The governor proposes $2.7 million in his supplemental budget proposal to address the disease. For Olin, that doesn’t come close to financing the solution to a problem that, at best, will take at least four or five years to fix, and will only get worse if kept unchecked, he said.

Now, several proposals are moving forward in the House, including an Olin-sponsored bill, HF4075, which lays out a $6 million Board of Animal Health proposal in the current biennium to deal with the disease, which has been found in Roseau and Beltrami counties. This includes a $3.1 million state buyout program and fencing cost/share assistance.

With the recent downgrade to the state’s bovine tuberculosis rating, dairy cows, along with cattle, will now be subject to testing, if they are to be shipped out of the state. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid)

A targeted response

Since 2005, 11 infected herds have been detected in the state. But this latest downgrade is serious business.

Bill Hartmann, executive director of the board, is seeking split-state status from the federal government. This would allow the majority of the state to upgrade its status, while focusing resources to the infected area, and saving producers outside the TB area from the additional federal testing requirements.

HF4075 was approved April 8 by the House Finance Committee and awaits action in the House Ways and Means Committee. A companion bill, SF3728, sponsored by Sen. Rod Skoe (DFL-Clearbrook), awaits action by the full Senate. It has $190,000 more in funding than the House plan. The House language is also contained in HF1812, the supplemental finance bill, which is now in conference committee.

The bill would offer ranchers inside an established bovine tuberculosis management zone the choice to voluntarily depopulate their cattle herds by Dec. 31, 2008. To that end, the board would be allocated $3.1 million in Fiscal Year 2008 to help cattle owners comply with new requirements that could include fencing or a buyout. Cattle owners in the zone would have until July 15 to decide whether to participate in a buyout program. Those who do would be paid market-value plus $500 per head by the state and an annual payment of $75 for each animal slaughtered until the area receives a bovine-tuberculosis-free status and the owner is authorized by the board to have cattle located in the zone.

Hartmann said 56 herds would be eligible for the buyout, at a cost of $2.75 million, with the annual producer payments totaling more than $1.3 million over the five years that it is expected to take to have the disease under control.

Ranchers choosing to keep their herds intact would be subjected to several testing and control requirements, including adequate fencing of their herd and grazing areas so they cannot be accessed by deer or elk. The state would provide a cost-share payment of up to $75,000 or 90 percent of the cost of an approved fence. Hartmann said the DNR estimates it would cost between $1 million and $1.5 million to fence all 56 herds in the infected area, along with the stored feed and winter feeding area.

The board would use more than $2.7 million of the appropriation for monitoring testing outreach and other required activities to comply with federal regulations.

It was also announced this week the state will receive $2.7 million from the U.S Department of Agriculture to fight the disease.

Roseau County Bovine TB Coordinator Dave Grafstrom, from left, County Commissioner Russell Walker and County Coordinator Trish Harren-Klein talk with Rep. Dave Olin, right, in his office about bovine TB in the area and his proposed legislation. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid)

The impact

The economic impact of not doing anything could be huge to a state that annually moves more than 200,000 head of cattle across state lines.

While the state moves its plans forward, there’s some resistance from ranchers and another local partner needed to battle the disease — sports enthusiasts who use their land in the infected area for hunting. It’s not only cattle that can carry the disease, but deer and elk, and part of the state’s plan includes nearly wiping out the area’s deer population.

In all likelihood, the newest TB outbreak started with one infected cow, imported from another state. But deer and elk are efficient carriers of the disease, since they graze on open lands and come into contact with cattle and their food source. According to the DNR, there are about 800 deer in the bovine TB infected area, and 17 TB cases have been confirmed in free-ranging deer.

The DNR has been taking measures to thin deer populations on publicly owned land, but HF4164, sponsored by Rep. Kent Eken (DFL-Twin Valley), would extend the DNR’s authority for controlling the deer population to privately owned land. The bill awaits action by the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee. The companion, SF3811, sponsored by Skoe, awaits action by the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.

Roseau County Commissioner Russell Walker, County Coordinator Trish Harren-Klein, and Bovine TB Coordinator Dave Grafstrom were in Olin’s office April 7 to talk about the state plans that, just in the past six weeks, are reaching a “fever pitch,” according to Harren-Klein.

This is a debate that could define a community of people for some time to come, they say. They fear that it could become a livestock vs. sportsmen conflict, and acknowledge there are those who want to drive a wedge between the two. They are hoping that as information about the issue gets out, and the solutions to manage the problems are explained, there will be more buy-in.

“It gets down to people are people, and you gotta get down to the one-on-one to find out their concerns and try to address them,” Grafstrom said.

The idea of a voluntary buyout has been floated at recent community meetings, but so far there aren’t too many interested parties, Grafstrom said. “Farmers, in general, are independent (thinkers) and livestock producers are more independent, they don’t get a lot of government subsidies. But one of the things that is important are neighbors. People want to get along with each other and that sense of community is important.”

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