USDA depopulating Texas dairies

WASHINGTON – After nearly 15 years of fighting bovine tuberculosis in El Paso County, Texas, the USDA has a plan officials believe will eradicate the problem: depopulation.

The USDA plans to create a buffer zone between the dairy farms in El Paso, Texas, and the bovine tuberculosis-infected farms of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, by authorizing the purchase of dairy cattle operations and a processing plant in the El Paso, Texas, area.

The plan carries a $44 million price tag and allows the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, in cooperation with the state of Texas, to purchase the operations over the next two years.

A lot of milk. El Paso County’s dairy farms produce 5 percent of the milk production in the United States, and El Paso County’s one of the top five milk-producing counties in Texas.

Despite ongoing testing of large dairy herds in the El Paso area and the removal of infected animals from those herds, U.S. dairy herds continue to be reinfected by being so close to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

Under this rule, producers, who volunteer to participate for the buyout, will be paid the fair market value, up to $3,000 per infected or uninfected animal. Producers will be compensated for the next 20 years of lost income.

Just the cows. The USDA is purchasing only the 12,203 milking cows on the 10 dairy farms in the designated zone, not the real estate. What the producer does with the dairy facilities is up to the producer, said Ed Curlett, spokesperson for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Heath Inspection Service.

Although buyout is voluntary, the inspection service said all of the farmers will probably sell their operation.

“We’ve been working with (the farmers) for a couple of years to come up with something we can agree on,” Curlett said.

Keep the cows. Some of the farmers plan to take the money, but keep their dairy cows. They can still have their operations, but not in the designated El Paso area, Curlett said.

“A lot of the dairy farms may be relocating somewhere else,” said Beverly Boyd, spokesperson for the Texas Department of Agriculture.

Boyd said the high plains of the Amarillo and Lubbock areas of Texas may be attractive spots for farmers to take their operations.

All the herds in the affected region have been tested for bovine TB on an ongoing basis; any infected cows will be destroyed.

Eliminate disease. The action is a part of the expansion of USDA’s bovine tuberculosis eradication program that started in October 2000 when $60 million in emergency funds was transferred to the inspection service to eliminate the disease.

Those funds are being used to address tuberculosis in wildlife populations in Michigan, to eliminate infected and high-risk herds in the El Paso area, to assist Mexico with its tuberculosis eradication program and to deal with the international trade aspects of the disease.

Three have it. Texas, Michigan and California are the only remaining states with tuberculosis-infected animals.

Bovine tuberculosis is a contagious, infectious and communicable disease caused by Mycobacterium bovis.

It affects cattle, bison, deer, elk, goats and other animals, including humans.

The disease, which makes lesions form on the lungs, bones and other body parts, causes weight loss and can be fatal.

Once the most prevalent infectious disease of cattle and swine in the United States, bovine TB caused more losses among U.S. farm animals in the early part of the last century than all other infectious diseases combined.

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