A Lesson on Infectious Disease From a TB Positive Heifer

3 of 5 Things you Must Know this Month


First, let me offer that folks involved in agriculture know far more about infectious disease than the average human. 


Factually, managing disease in livestock is one of the top concerns of producers around this nation. Agriculturists track, treat, vaccinate, quarantine, and study about disease and it's financial impact on their bottom line. 

Talking to some of my larger producer friends, one truth always pops up again and again, “when a disease pops up, transportation stops.” 

It is the way that we know how to stop a disease in it's tracks. Brucellosis, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (Mad Cow disease), TB and others are tracked, and if something comes up positive, transportation stops. 

We have been told again and again by politicians (including health officers around this nation) that their decisions are scientific, and that you can’t argue with science. Only problem is, apparently science is different in every state in the union, because no two states came up with the same answer. 

Politics, not science, have guided the decisions across this nation and even those who try to deny it know it's true. The science says that separation shuts down COVID-19 and any other communicable disease. Similar to these facts we learn from agriculture, if a positive case pops up around the ranch, the region, or even the state - it is locked down. 

How did that play out during the COVID-19 outbreak? On the same day the Governor of New York was opining about everyone staying at home, you could catch a flight in and out of NYC or fly from NYC to practically anywhere in America. 

Common sense would tell us this was just wrong, but no one was willing to shut down travel, even if they were willing to tell the barber that they couldn’t cut hair. Politics folks, we all know it in our hearts.

How about that TB positive heifer? We regularly test critters before we haul them across state line or out of a watch area. Depending upon the classification of your state, your tests are different. 

I had a particular heifer (a durn good one I might add) that had to be tested for TB. You test cattle by injecting a small amount of tuberculin under the skin behind the tail and wait a couple of days for a reaction. I had seen a positive test before, and it didn’t take much guessing. If the animal was positive, the site swelled profusely. I knew I was in good shape because no such reaction had occurred. 

The vet (not long out of vet school) arrived to check the tests, stepped out of the truck - armed with diplomas and certifications of every kind, but not one bit of practical experience regarding the endeavor ahead. I was asked to put the heifer in the chute, I found that odd for a show heifer, it was out of the ordinary but I complied. I knew I was in trouble when the spot was rubbed and poked again and again. 

“There’s a lump," I was told. I felt the spot, and certainly, a bump about the size of a pencil tip could be felt. I argued that certainly the needle prick left a tiny bump, and this was not a reaction, but to no avail. 

A week later, and with everything in the show barn being tested for TB, that same little bump was on almost every critter. The end result? The heifer was cleared, the disaster averted, and one of the worst beat downs from a state vet I have ever heard was suffered by that young vet. 

I am sure that new vet remembers those words until this day, and I am sure that a shiver goes down their spine anytime they have to give a TB test. 

What’s the point of all of this? My Grandfather used to say that there is nothing more ignorant than an educated man speaking about something he is uneducated on. All the degrees in the world will not replace experience. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that science and politics make for a deadly cocktail. 

America drank the cocktail, and now we have to suffer the hangover. Everyone has their solutions to get rid of the hangover, but like most of those college remedies we tried, nothing really works. We promise ourselves we “won’t do that again” but only time will tell if we remember our failings.


-- Dale Steenbergen, President & CEO of the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce

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