From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 3, Number 36 - December 4, 2003
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Boulder herd bled

by Cat Urbigkit

On Tuesday, one Sublette County livestock producer had to do something that most wish would never have to happen: bleed his entire herd for brucellosis testing in response to a titer.

Brucellosis, or Bang's disease, is a bacterial disease that causes abortion and lowered milk production in cattle. It's been the subject of a national eradication effort for many years and has been nearly eliminated from the nation's livestock, although a reservoir of the disease survives in wildlife populations in the Yellowstone region.

A "titer" is a scientific measure used as an indication of disease in this instance.

State and federal animal health officials arrived on the scene Tuesday to begin bleeding the Boulder-area cattle herd (estimated at 240 head) that has been under quarantine for two weeks.

That herd is called the index herd, from which four cows suspected of having brucellosis originated. However, two other herds in the same area will now undergo testing as well, at the prompting of federal officials but at the consent of the herd owners. Early next week, a herd of 800 head of cattle will be bled, then a third herd, consisting of 500 head, will be bled beginning on Dec. 11. Neither of these two herds is under quarantine.

In a conference call interview on Monday, Wyoming State Veterinarian Dr. Jim Logan confirmed that he was notified two weeks ago that a brucellosis test at slaughter revealed four high titer cows that had been slaughtered out of state, but originated in Sublette County. Federal animal health officials associated with USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service immediately began the epidemiology work.

Logan stressed that the Boulder situation is being addressed in a highly cooperative manner between federal and state officials, which will continue into the future.

The index herd, although under quarantine, has not been determined to be an infected herd at this time - that's what the whole-herd test determines. Several contact herds and adjacent herds have now been identified, Logan said.

The blood samples will be hand-delivered to the state vet lab in Laramie, with results available within 24 hours, Logan said. The results will determine what the follow-up action will be, Logan said. If a high titer is discovered, the samples will be overnighted to a federal testing facility in Iowa.

Also, if high titers are found in the blood tests, then blood and tissue samples will be taken for culturing.

"If we find infection in the herd, there will be other herds that will need to be tested," Logan said. "Even if we don't find any infection or high titers, it is probably going to be prudent to test the contact herds."

And testing the herds one time probably isn't going to be enough, Logan and Dr. Brett Combes of APHIS said.

Combes, the area veterinarian in charge for APHIS in Wyoming, said several other head of cattle were sold from the index herd and apparently have not gone to slaughter, so efforts are now being made to trace those cattle. At least one of those animals has already been tested for brucellosis.

Logan and Combes agreed that the best-case scenario would be for the index herd to come back with negative test results. The contact herds and all sales and purchases from the index herd would still need tested as well, along with any animals the index herd may have grazed with or shared a fenceline with. There is a strong possibility the index herd would need retesting within 60 days as well, the veterinarians said.

The brucellosis testing consists of bleeding each sexually intact animal from its tail. In addition, animal health officials will have to head-catch each animal, verify the eartags and brands, and age some of the cows.

Logan and Combes said if the cows are handled properly, it's a fairly innocuous procedure on the pregnant cows.

Combes said the testing crews are experienced and training has stressed that the operations be handled quietly and efficiently.

"This is not a cowboy-up operation," Combes said.

Logan added: "We really have stressed that with our crews. If the cattle are handled properly, they'll be okay."

There will be two federal vets on site, one animal health technician and two staff members from the Wyoming Livestock Board as well.

Logan said that some may criticize the state for moving too slowly in response to this incident, but he said the state moved according to the established protocol that is always used in such situations. He also spoke against the heavy hand of government coming in and taking action without all the facts.

If an infected herd is found, things will move faster, Logan said.

"It's very, very important that we work together at the federal and state level, and that we work cooperatively with the producers," Logan said.

With such an emotional, stressful and difficult issue as this, all action needs to be "as innocuous and as smooth as it can be."

Logan requested livestock producers cooperate with the effort now underway. "All of this cooperation is essential in maintaining Wyoming's brucellosis-free status," Logan said. "It's here and we're going to have to pull together and deal with it."

Wyoming has been classified as a brucellosis-free state for nearly 25 years.

Of the four cows, one was definitely an RB51 vaccinate. RB51 is the new brucellosis vaccine approved for use in 1996 and has replaced the long-relied-on Strain 19 vaccine.

Strain 19 is famous for its false-positive reactions, but RB51 is not. Logan and Dr. Mark Stewardt of APHIS agreed that the titers on two of these four cows was higher than they have seen even with a high titer Strain 19 reaction.

Logan said he expects some people to question if the RB51 vaccine failed, but he adamantly maintained, "I believe the science can prove that the answer is no."

Should brucellosis be detected in a Sublette County cattle herd, one of the issues that will eventually surface is where the disease came from, especially considering the location of the index herd to a Wyoming Game and Fish Department-managed elk feedground. Elk on western Wyoming feedgrounds are known carriers of the disease and WG&F has an active vaccination program against the disease.

Logan said should brucellosis positively be detected, epidemiology work will be undertaken to break it down to type, subtype and beyond. Work will initially look at tracing it back through the livestock perspective, tracing it back to elk will be attempted as well, although even the best result won't necessarily be positively conclusive.

Logan said regardless, should infection in a cow herd be traced to an elk, "we've still got the problem, regardless of the source."

When asked what option the livestock producer has, should an infected cow be detected in his herd, Combes said first the infected animal must be immediately removed by taking it to slaughter, allowing further testing of the carcass.

The normal policy in a brucellosis-free status state, is for the entire herd in which an infected animal is detected to be depopulated because of the potential risk involved in keeping the animals. Depopulated means slaughtered.

"There are other options," Combes said, but because they involve long-term testing and quarantine, they "... are not very viable."

The federal government will pay the costs associated with bleeding these herds. Should a herd have to be depopulated, the producer can receive the slaughter value along with a small indemnity payment from the federal government. It's a small amount compared to the value put into these breeding herds, developed over many years.

Animal health officials are currently making contact with other livestock producers in this area to talk about bleeding their cattle as well. These initial three herds certainly seem to be only the beginning of a much larger effort to come.

Logan acknowledged that the coming days will involve a great deal of stress for livestock producers and all involved with the issue.

Logan's WLB has called for a community meeting Dec. 15 at 7 p.m. at the Pinedale Entertainment Center. All livestock producers are urged to attend to learn all the updated information on these cases and to provide input to the animal health officials involved.

The Examiner will post test results as they become available at and

Colorado has already imposed a prohibition on the importation of western Wyoming cattle. There is also a buffer zone encompassing the Big Horn basin, Fremont and Sweetwater county areas where cattle must be tested before entering Colorado. Cattle from eastern Wyoming can freely enter Colorado.

Colorado's new protocol is slated to remain in place until the Boulder index herd is determined to be brucellosis-free.

It is expected other states will take similar action.

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