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Bovine TB – It Takes a Community

May 26, 2016

As sure as the fact that apples draw deer, is the reality that, in general, farmers are independent people. They have acquired skills that enable them to do a great many things on the farm, both in production and maintaining various aspects of the business. It is this independence that draws many producers to agriculture, and can often keep them on the farm when times get tough.

Yet, some problems are bigger than one man, one woman or one family. Some problems are bigger than the farm operation that is affected by them. Ironically, maintaining independence in the face of these problems may ultimately be detrimental to the survival of a farm business.

The evidence says that Bovine Tuberculosis (bTB) in the core bTB area of northeast Michigan is that kind of problem – too big for any individual. We have many examples – 65 to date – of the failure of individuals to be able to keep bTB out of their herds.

The time has come to work together as communities to face bTB head-on; communities of farmers certainly, but also broader communities of famers and non-farmers united across the geographic region impacted by this disease. We need each other because together, a community can do more than any individual. Together, a community can reduce the risk of bTB claiming another herd of cattle – another livelihood – another family.

A good illustration of the value of working together as farm communities is the advantage gained when managing starlings in the winter. If a single farm partners with USDA Wildlife Services to eliminate starlings, only a portion will be controlled because many of the birds inevitably go to other farms nearby. However, when farms in a community bait concurrently, the effect is much greater and the outcome is more desirable for everyone.

What can a community do in the case of bTB? Here are a few things, but certainly not an exhaustive list.

  • Communicate the importance of agriculture and the need for protection against wildlife that may carry bTB to non-farming neighbors.
  • Collectively monitor changes in deer density and behavior.
  • Assist each other in identifying risks on farms and also how management of adjacent non-ag lands may affect bTB risks.
  • Communicate with neighbors regarding changes in deer exclusion practices as they will alter deer movement and habits across a wide area.
  • Work to develop shared goals for the local deer herd regarding population density, herd composition, health, etc. Consider joining or starting a wildlife management co-op.
  • Enlist the help of hunters on available private lands to increase deer harvest. Communicate goals for the number and type of deer harvested from an area (i.e. targeting antlerless deer). Consider enrolling land in the DNR Hunter Access Program.
  • Install food plots and/or implement forest management practices to draw deer away from farmsteads and cattle while also creating additional opportunities for hunting.
  • Establish common farmland leasing provisions among local producers that include the right to control deer on rented land and request their inclusion in all future lease agreements, so that landowners come to accept the practice.
  • Develop a close relationship with your local DNR biologist. Acquire and use DNR issued Disease Control Permits, Deer Management Assistance Permits and regular hunting licenses strategically as a community to be more effective in eliminating wildlife pests.
  • Celebrate the blessings of agriculture and abundant wildlife with a community event.

While an individual could do some of these things independently, the effectiveness will increase dramatically when implemented by a community. How does one get started? Reach out to your farm neighbors, even if you don’t see eye-to-eye on everything. Agree to prevent bTB in the community to the greatest extent possible. Get together and talk about the risks and how those risks can be reduced for every farm. Be a leader in fostering open communication across your community.

How big is the ideal bTB management community? It needs to be big enough to have an impact on the wildlife carriers of bTB and small enough to make it workable. It will vary based on the nearness of farms, available wildlife habitat and the movement of deer. It should include everyone in that geographical area who has skin in the game, famers and non-farmers alike.

You won’t have all the answers to start. You don’t need all the answers because the diverse perspectives and skills present in your community will contribute to the development of new ideas. Begin by having casual, constructive conversations about this. Take a step even if you are not sure where it will lead. I would be glad to help, but the real relevant work gets done in your community.

bTB has been infecting 2-4 cattle herds per year in our region despite intervention and the work of individual producers. It is time to change the dynamic, and that can only be done by coordinating and working together as communities, with the shared goals of reduced bTB risk for cattle and a healthy deer herd.

Source: Phil Durst and James DeDecker, Michigan State University