Nelson family, Harding County, South Dakota, ships whole herd due to bovine tuberculosis
Number of Herds Identified with Infected Cows 3
Number of adjacent Herds Quarantined 6
Number of adjacent Herds Released from Quarantine 15
Number of Trace Out Investigation Herds in SD 94
Number of Trace Out States 12: ND, MT, WY, CO, NE, KS, OK, MN, IA, MO, AR, TX
Total Cattle Tested in SD (May 2, 2017) 8,794
Editor’s note: Susan Nelson shared a journal with many of her family’s thoughts throughout their tuberculosis ordeal. Those thoughts are included in italics.
It is impossible to put into words the fear that the word tuberculosis strikes in your heart and your gut. You fear for yourself, your family, your cattle, your horses, your dogs, your cats, and your neighbors. The only way we could combat it and push back the fear was to go to the Lord in prayer, trust and have faith in God that He would get us through this nightmare.
Wayne and Susan Nelson don’t focus on the hardest part of their family’s battle with bovine tuberculosis.
Their focus is on their family, their horses and dogs, their neighbors, their future and their faith.
“I think the tears are gone,” Susan said.
“It had gotten to the point that we had accepted it. I think it somehow became easier to do what we had to do,” she said, of losing her family’s entire herd of cattle due to bovine tuberculosis.
“We battled it day by day finding positive things to think about. We went to the Lord,” she says. Wayne and Susan Nelson of Harding County, South Dakota, learned in February 2017 that three cows from their herd, which had been sold for slaughter in November, had tested positive for bovine tuberculosis, a disease requiring quarantine and testing – and ultimately, in their case, a complete depopulation.
The timing of this outbreak could be described as “The Perfect Storm” in the ranching business with calving looming on the horizon. We moved as fast as we could with the testing procedure. We were testing our cows within 10 days of the initial phone call from Dr. Odekoven, the South Dakota state veterinarian. The waiting for lab reports to come in and government protocol was very frustrating, as we knew we were on a very tight timeline to the onset of calving.
Calving season this year started out no different than any other. The Nelson family spent long days and sleepless nights helping heifers calve and keeping the cows and calves healthy. But they knew neither the cows nor the calves would be headed to grass for the summer.
On April 18, the last of the cattle left the Nelson ranch.
Every bovine over two years of age had been tested. Those that tested positive once were then given a different test. Those that tested positive again were sent to a state lab for euthanizing and necropsy.
Test negative animals were shipped for slaughter under routine inspection. Known positive animals or carcasses with lesions detected at slaughter were withheld from the food supply.
The calves were loaded on a trailer and given a sedative so they wouldn’t be stressed during transport. They were euthanized when they reached their destination. “When that trailer left and it was silent – that was really heartbreaking,” Susan said.
There is no reliable test for cattle under two years old, and baby calves carry the same risk of perpetuating the disease as their dams.
“The timing could have been better,” Wayne said, explaining that if they had known earlier that their entire herd was to be put down, they could have avoided the stress of shipping full term cows, milking cows and baby calves.
When the cows were confirmed positive, we requested that Dr. Oedekoven give us time to call our bordering neighbors with the news before a press release was put out. Bordering ranches were all quarantined and had to go through the same testing process as we did. Much of the week that this took place was rough winter weather conditions. Our family stepped in to help as much as we could. All the vet crews were remarkable and worked 7 days a week as most everyone was up against a calving date also.
The Nelsons were always mindful of neighbors, even from day one.
The news of tuberculosis that looked like it had originated at the Nelson ranch was a shock to the Nelsons and their neighbors. The Nelson ranch, along with all fenceline-neighboring ranches were quarantined. After extensive testing, 44 infected cows were removed from the Nelson herd. False positives are common with the tuberculosis test, so cattle that react with “positive” responses to the initial two tests were euthanized so that lungs could be viewed and necropsied in order to confirm positives.
“There was so much shock in the community when we found out Nelsons had TB in their herd,” said Matt Gilbert, a neighbor who didn’t fall under the quarantine, but helped neighbors who did. “Nelsons have a clean, well-run cow-calf operation. Just top-notch. Everyone was educating themselves about TB in a short time to be aware of what everyone was about to go through. Thankfully the testing has gone well and the TB hasn’t been found outside of original affected cows. What the Nelson family has had to go through is awful but we are confident they will come through this. They are a strong family and good stockmen.”
One animal from a neighboring ranch tested positive for tuberculosis. It had originated at the Nelson ranch and joined the neighboring herd in May of 2015. That herd will undergo a second test in late May and another in the fall before being released from quarantine.
After following up on sale records and more testing of animals that had been sold from the herd, another positive cow was discovered in Butte County, South Dakota, in late April. Nelsons had sold her in May of 2016. That herd was quarantined for testing, but the rest of the herd tested negative. A follow-up test in 60 days and another at six months will be conducted before the herd is released from quarantine. Six neighboring ranches in Butte county were also quarantined and testing is ongoing.
State and federal animal health officials continue to track cattle using sale records, official animal identification records, and certificates of veterinary inspection to identify animals that may have originated in the index herd and may now be in other herds.
What a shame that our federal government does not have a better testing process so that we may have saved the majority of our cows.
Nelsons are disappointed that the tuberculosis test for cattle is not more accurate. “The federal government has not improved their testing procedures for decades. With technology in this day and age, there should be a test that shows ‘this cow has it and this cow doesn’t.’”
It is hard to not feel angry with the testing situation, they said.
“It would be nice if there was a simple black and white test,” she said. Their concern is not only for their own family but for neighbors who were automatically quarantined. “If the test was more accurate it would be a lot less hassle for everyone.” The Nelsons and their neighbors were testing right before calving season which could have caused abortions and other problems in the pregnant cows.
South Dakota’s assistant state vet, Dr. Mendel Miller said that because there are relatively small numbers of cattle infected with TB each year, there is less research being done on it than on other, more prevalent diseases.
Dr. Oedokoven added that research continues, but that the bacteria is elusive at best. While the United States employs the best diagnostics and treatments and keeps the disease incidence low, he said the scientific community estimates that one-third of the world’s humans are infected with the disease.
“The unfortunate fact is ‘we don’t know what we don’t know’ about Mycobacteria, and a great deal of investment is needed on top of over 100 years of investment into this program to complete eradication of the disease. And even then – we’ll have the potential threat of introduction from the rest of the world, as people, animals, and products move at a mind-boggling pace, and this bacteria seems well equipped to evade us.”
We learned a lot about bovine TB and its unpredictable behavior over the past two and a half months. There is still much unknown about the disease. We learned that the current testing procedures aren’t 100 percent and that it affects each cow in a different time span. We learned that it would take a very intensive and almost impossible testing plan to try and eradicate it from our herd and that this bacteria could rear its ugly face again in a few years and we would be back to square one. So many questions. When we did get answers, it just led to five more questions. It seemed like a never-ending process and we probably will never know how our herd became infected.
Bovine tuberculosis is a slow-moving lung disease that can cause an unthrifty appearance and can eventually cause death, but rarely is that the case. Most infected cattle – as in Nelsons’ case – exhibit no outward signs and are discovered by inspectors in slaughter plants who see lung or lymph node lesions.
The bacterial disease can be spread from one animal to another through close contact, so the most common method for it to spread from one bovine to another is in concentrated areas like small pens, water tanks, feed bunks, etc.
Rarely is it spread through fenceline contact, said Oedekoven, because cattle don’t generally “rub noses” over the fence long enough to transmit the disease.
The Nelsons did not have any cattle that exhibited signs at any point and even after extensive testing and research, they do not know how the disease was introduced into their herd.
Just in the last couple of weeks, the state health department contacted the Nelson family to talk about people who had been on their ranch in recent months and years, just as a precaution.
The primary method of transmission of tuberculosis to humans from cattle is through raw milk. Instances of human tuberculosis have diminished since the introduction of the pasteurization process, so simply being physically exposed to infected animals is highly unlikely to transmit the disease to humans. Some veterinarians who necropsy infected animals may wear personal protective equipment when testing high risk herds, but most of the people involved in this case are in little to no danger, said Oedekoven.
Miller said there is no evidence that the disease came from wildlife, and while the strain that was discovered in the Nelson herd is very close to a strain that was found in dairy cattle in central Mexico in the 1990s, there are no clues as to how Nelsons wound up with it.
After weeks of riding the storm, learning about the behavior of TB, and with the high number of positive cows in our herd, we knew in our hearts what the fate of our cattle would be long before the USDA gave us their decision to depopulate our entire herd. There was too much to risk for our neighbors and ourselves.
Their cow herd is all gone now. All their cattle were shipped to an inspected slaughter facility. While the Nelsons were not forced to sell their entire herd, it was the only action that seemed logical.
“They calculate what percentage of your cows are positive,” Susan said of the USDA TB division. “We really didn’t have a choice. If we would have said ‘no we want to keep our young cows – yearlings, two-year-olds’ – and then if we had a positive case in two years – we were out – they wouldn’t have reimbursed us for them.” The Nelsons made the hard decision to go through with depopulation and were compensated through USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).
Their next steps include disinfecting all water tanks, feed troughs, mineral tubs and any other places the bacteria could linger. “It can’t live very long outside in the sun, but you just have to make sure,” Wayne said.
When it comes to disease control, the well-being of the SD livestock industry as a whole is always first priority, said Dr. Oedekoven. “I believe we have done this with our best effort and intentions to also keep Nelsons in a position to get back into the cattle business ASAP.”
Along with our children we have spent nearly 40 years building our cow herd.
A rancher and his family know their cows…#926 was a great nurse cow……she took an adopted calf along with her own to the pasture each year for the summer and raised them both to 600 pounds. Look out for #435- she’ll get you…she needs to go to town…and the list goes on. The cows knew when it was time to “head home” from the summer pastures and they were looking forward to heading out to them in early summer with a calf at their side.
Our entire family has all put blood, sweat, and tears into them to ensure they stayed content and healthy. Our kids have been helping since they could sit astride a horse. It’s like a family death in many ways.
After two lifetimes in the cattle business – and 40 of them together – Susan and Wayne had built a reputation herd of black Angus cattle. They would keep 80 to 100 head of their best heifers each year for replacements, and sell another 100 head in Belle Fourche in January weighing about 630 pounds. The top end of their steer calves weighed around 650 pounds when they sold them off the cow last October.
The family was reimbursed at appraised market value for the cattle that were put down, and according to state recommendations, they can bring cattle on the place after 60 days. For tax purposes the indemnity money has to be used to re-stock within two years. The Nelsons aren’t sure how long they will wait to buy cows again. They will probably lease out some of their pasture this summer.
Susan is keeping herself busy, helping a neighboring sheep rancher lamb, but she said it is tough to drive down the road and see the neighbor’s baby calves, and to walk out the door of her home and not hear cows or calves bellering.
“I’d go stir crazy,” she says of sitting at home on the place day after day with no cattle to take care of.
Their dogs and cats tested negative and the family was not required to put their horses down. “We were so thankful for the horses. That was huge. It was such a relief for everyone,” said Nelson who said many tears were shed over concern for their horses.
One of the most important lessons our family has learned from this almost unbelievable journey is how important it is to call, send a card, or give a hug to someone in need of support. Our heartfelt thanks to all who have supported during this time.
Wayne and Susan and their son, two daughters and son-in-law are grateful for the support from neighbors and friends. Often acquaintances don’t know what to say, and they appreciated the cards and words of encouragement through e-mail or other methods. “People don’t realize how much it means to just know that they are thinking of us, or that they want to know how we are doing. It has meant the world to us.”
As the last load of cows and calves left the ranch on that sunny April day, we reminisced a bit over the past two and a half months, let out a deep sigh and whispered “What a shame…” With that, we turned our backs on this process and walked back to the house, determined to move on.