Cattle in TB zone plummet in value
In 1996 at the Michigan Limousin Association State Show in Midland, Ervin Alexander stood proud as five of his animals took high honors, including Grand Champion Bull, Grand Champion Female and three division winners. Years of selective breeding and more than 40 years of AI work were paying off. Or so he thought. It didn’t play out like that when it came time to sell.
“Once people found out where we were located, they didn’t want to buy from us,” says Alexander, whose Hubbard Lake farm is located in what is now often referred to as the bovine tuberculosis “hot zone,” because of the high prevalence of bovine TB in the white-tailed, free-ranging deer herd.
• Farmer says living in TB “hot zone” has stripped his market for premium cattle.
• Appraisals by USDA do not cover what it would cost to replace animals.
• Independent appraisals are costly and often rejected by USDA.
Two years before the show, the first TB-positive deer was harvested just a few miles from his farm. Whole-herd testing of his animals and other farms in the area all came back negative. It wouldn’t be until two years later that TB surfaced in cattle, but that didn’t matter. “Buyers didn’t want to take a chance, and I can’t say as I blame them,” Alexander says.
Premium markets have virtually been eliminated out of fear for much of the Modified Accredited Zone (MAZ), or the “hot zone,” of Presque Isle, Alcona, Alpena, Oscoda and Montmorency counties, which continue to have strict testing and movement requirements.
“By having TB here, my life’s work has been downgraded to commercial cattle,” Alexander says.
A sign out in the front yard used to say ERVN Limousin Cattle. It’s been removed. “We still raise quality Limousin cattle, but we no longer register them because it costs about $50 a head to join the association and keep cow inventory,” he says. “It’s just not worth it when the market won’t pay for purebred cattle from this area.”
The loss of premiums is just the beginning of frustration and anxiety for Alexander and other farmers in the area.
It’s been 12 years since the first bovine TB-positive cattle herd was identified, and throughout that time, the MAZ has been subject to surveillance testing, movement testing and mandatory annual whole-herd testing. Alexander’s annual test was Oct. 18, followed by secondary testing three days later. On Oct. 27 he learned three of his brood cows were suspect, which means the farm is immediately quarantined, and USDA will indemnify those animals so they can be necropsied at the state lab for a definitive diagnosis. But first, USDA employees or an outside appraiser will set a value on the animals that the producer can either accept or reject with an appeal.
According to Joelle Hayden, with the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, it is normal practice to talk over the phone with the producer about breed, weight and other characteristics of the cattle. “We then go to local markets to gather information on similar animals,” she says. “If local information or values are unavailable, national level information is obtained from USDA Centers for Epidemiology and Animal Health. Values can wax and wane over time, but the going rate for fair market value is used for the appraisal.”
The appraisal on Alexander’s three suspects came back $700 less than three cull cows he had sold in the spring. Although the law allows for phone appraisals, Alexander says it’s an injustice for producers like himself. “I culled a 17-year-old cow for $1,275, but USDA wants to pay me $920 for a 42-month-old prime heifer?” he questions.
Alexander had 15 days to appeal the appraisal, which he did, but a month later, not much progress had been made. Part of the appeal includes writing an Acceptable Livestock Appraisal Report.
“The guidelines for writing this is 10 pages long,” Alexander says. “And it includes hiring an outside appraisal. That will probably cost upwards of $2,000, and even then, USDA has been known to reject appraisals for not following the guidelines to a tee. It’s a way to force a producer to accept it because it’s so burdensome to fight it. I find it hard to swallow that they can value my animals over the phone, but I have to go through all this documentation to prove my side. They should have to abide by their own appraisal process.”
If Alexander’s animals are TB positive, he fears for what he’ll get for the remainder of his herd. “I can’t begin to replace these animals for what they are offering.”
Alexander has not heard from USDA since his appeal. He still feeds the animals every day, but “I can’t help but wonder every morning if they’ll still be mine at the end of the day.”
This article published in the January, 2011 edition of MICHIGAN FARMER.