Coming to grips with Johne’s


SALEM, Ohio – Martha Manderson had big plans for retirement.

A podiatrist by trade, she’d step back from daily treatment. There’d be no worries of disease, chronic conditions, trouble.

She moved to the Southington, Ohio, farm she calls a perfect fit for her herding dogs and flock of 18 sheep.

No warning. Now she’s being robbed of her lifelong dream.

Hopelessly, helplessly, without warning, those sheep are dying.

Two wasted away in less than three months, Manderson said. She found two others dead shortly after.

There were no warning signs, no diarrhea, no wasting. Manderson thought those two were perfectly healthy.

A doctor, she was used to testing and wanted answers: What caused this? What was wrong with them? Why was the flock dying?

Necropsy proved at least one of the animals succumbed to Johne’s disease.

And now, she wants to know why this disease is spreading and how she can help stop it.

Victims. Manderson isn’t alone in watching her valuable livestock waste away to nothing.

Johne’s has been around for more than 100 years, and is considered a major problem for ruminants, especially beef and dairy cattle, according to Ohio State extension veterinarian Bill Shulaw.

Llamas, alpacas, sheep and goats can also fall victim to the ravaging disease.

Yet many herd owners drag their feet in recognizing and managing the incurable disease in their herds.

And in doing that, they’re only helping Johne’s get a tighter grip on farms everywhere.

By the numbers. Maybe the numbers will shock farmers enough to demand attention.

Through the state’s voluntary testing program in 2003, Ohio’s Animal Disease Diagnostic Lab confirmed 441 positive cases of Johne’s disease in the state.

Wayne County had 164. Holmes, 122. Columbiana, 160. Stark, 111.

In 1994, roughly 10,000 tests came through the lab. In 2002, the same lab did more than 59,000 tests.

More than 1,200 were positive.

The numbers – and positive tests – are growing and spreading.

It’s no surprise to Ned Cunningham, an ODA veterinary medical officer and designated Johne’s coordinator. Where there are cattle, there’s Johne’s, he said.

Concerned. Ohio’s state veterinarian, David Glauer, says there is a great amount of concern about the disease at all levels.

But some producers are still in the dark. Why aren’t they taking action?

A 2002 survey shows less than 10 percent of dairymen across the country test new additions to their herd for Johne’s.

“They’re not putting much emphasis on it, and not taking the time to test,” Glauer said.

But maybe Ohio farmers should.

“From a disease standpoint, we’re lucky to be in Ohio,” said Fred Bennett, a Lisbon-area veterinarian and a member of Ohio’s Cattle Disease Advisory Committee.

“We’re in one of only two states that testing to the user doesn’t cost anything,” he said.

Neither Bennett nor the Ohio Department of Agriculture could confirm the other state with free testing.

A farm’s only cost in running Johne’s tests is paying an accredited vet to take manure or blood samples.

Advisory committee. Experts agree Johne’s isn’t a public health concern right now – it’s a farm-focused, herd management concern.

“The general public doesn’t need to worry about this, but farmers sure do,” said Connie Finton, who dairies with her husband at Carlene Farms near New Philadelphia.

Finton sits on the disease advisory committee and knows what an issue the disease can be.

When she was appointed to that committee, her dairy wasn’t testing for the disease. They didn’t think it was a problem. But what if it was?, she wondered.

She told her husband, Cliff, to either test the herd or she was walking away from the committee position.

In the clear. The Fintons’ herd is a Test Negative Status Level 5 herd – they’ve passed more than five annual Johne’s tests disease-free, and are taking steps to stay that way.

“Ohio has the best testing program in the country. We test every animal [over 24 months of age], not just 20 percent and figure it’s OK,” she said.

“We ask for more information about used equipment we buy on the farm than we do about animals. That doesn’t sound good, and we need to change that,” Finton said.

Protect yourself. “Ohio has an implied warranty law. Buyer beware,” Glauer said.

“The buyer needs to ask the health status of animals before they’re bought,” he said.

Manderson says she purchased the sheep with the disease. The 300-sheep flock they came from, however, never mentioned its Johne’s-positive status until she questioned the owners.

That breeder, whom she respected, is helping pass this disease, she says.

Considerable costs. But testing and culling alone can’t stop the spread of Johne’s.

Farmers have to do something else to control or eradicate the disease: manage manure and their livestock.

“The things you’ll do for Johne’s will also help with other diseases, and that’s the story we need to pass on,” said ODA’s Ned Cunningham.

Finton’s farm made one easy change. The couple bought another bucket for their skid loader. Now one touches only feed, the other, only manure.

“It’s probably still not the best way, but it’s workable for us.

“Why wouldn’t you want to improve your management? That’s a ‘duh’ for me,” Finton said of her on-farm risk assessment.

Losses. If 1 in 10 cows in a dairy herd of 100 have moderate infection, they’re costing the farmer around $23,000 a year.

“That doesn’t take long to add up. That [money] could mean a new truck or tractor or a better winter,” Glauer said.

Losses aren’t as well documented in beef cows. Veterinarian Glauer said the disease can cost upward of $200 a cow in a seedstock operation.

“Management is the goal. It’s not that you can fix everything, but at least see what you can fix that’s economically viable,” Glauer urged.

Hindsight. Looking back, Manderson thought the Johne’s signs were other diseases.

The bottle jaw was worms, perhaps. Maybe they were thin because she wasn’t feeding them enough.

In hindsight, she identified a strange mannerism in the flock: The infected sheep would avoid the flock and stare into the sky.

But she didn’t know what Johne’s was, what it meant, what it looked like.

Now it’s too late.

Helpless. Manderson is heartbroken she can’t save her dying animals.

She won’t deny she’s got the disease on her farm. She wants to learn how to control and eradicate it.

She’ll get past this and start over, she vowed.

“I think this is a serious disease, and I’ll work really hard to have a closed flock when I start again,” Manderson said.

“I don’t think the remaining sheep have it, but all it takes is one,” she said.

“The easy way out is to get rid of all of them. I just don’t want this on my farm.”

(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at

What does Johne’s look like?

*       The bacteria that causes Johne’s disease, mycobacterium avium subspecies paratuberculosis, is hardy. It can live up to a year outside the animal’s body, but can’t multiply.

*       Clinical signs of the disease are classic in cattle: chronic diarrhea and weight loss. But not every animal wastes away.

*       In sheep and goats, signs are weight loss, bottle jaw, depression and wool loss or wool break. Afflicted sheep and goats typically don’t have diarrhea.

*       Transmission is by fecal-oral contamination, and it can be years before signs show up. Carriers who don’t show signs of the disease spread it across your farm before you even know to look for it.

(Source: William Shulaw, Ohio State Extension beef and sheep veterinarian)

Johne’s transmission and testing

*       Milk transmission is likely; calves can pick up the disease before they’re born.

*      For every animal in the herd that shows signs, there are 10 others infected.

*       Testing is done by fecal culture, bloodwork, or after death.

*       Lab results can take up to 16 weeks. Ohio Department of Agriculture Animal Disease Diagnostic Lab researchers are developing another method that can shorten that to 14-42 days.

(Source: William Shulaw, Ohio State Extension beef and sheep veterinarian)



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