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Fever tick: An old Texas foe poses threat to U.S. beef industry

Progressive Cattleman Editor Cassidy Woolsey Published on 30 June 2016

For more than 100 years the cattle fever tick has been a force to be reckoned with, specifically in Texas.

Brought by the Spanish colonists in the early 1700s, the impact of fever ticks wasn’t significantly felt until the late 1800s when Southern cattle driven into Northern states caused Northern cattle to die. The same held true when Northern cattle driven south died when they reached Texas.

Although preventative measures were taken to combat the spread of fever ticks – one being legislation that prohibited Texas-origin cattle from entering states such as Kansas, effectively ending the nostalgic Texas cattle drives of the late 1800s – recent changes in their environment and existing regulations on ranchers have triggered these problematic parasites to move north of the U.S.-Mexico border.

“The spread of fever ticks poses a major threat not only to the Texas ranchers, but to the entire United States livestock industry and economy,” said Kaleb McLaurin, the director of government affairs at Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA). “It’s a vector that a very small area of south Texas has been continuously battling for hundreds of years. However, cattle fever ticks historically inhabited all of the southern United States, so the return of this parasite to its historical range will have devastating effects on animal welfare and the entire agricultural economy.”

Wildlife refuge

Since 1943, fever ticks have been contained to a thin strip of land along the Texas-Mexico border, known as the “permanent systematic quarantine zone.” But with an increased number of white-tailed deer and nonnative nilgai antelope, an encroachment of ticks have spread into their old traditional habitat, using wildlife as a secondary host.

In a collaborative effort with the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC) and USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA-APHIS), ranchers have worked tirelessly to combat the fever tick. However, making the process even more challenging is the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge that consists of 223,000 acres of protected natural habitat.

Controlled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS), the refuge in Cameron and Willacy counties has recently seen a spike in fever tick populations, but FWS has yet to take aggressive action to control the infestation, McLaurin said.

“Because of its location, the refuge serves as a freeway for ticks moving north,” McLaurin said. “Their base camp – once Mexico – is now within the U.S. and shares property boundaries with private landowners and ranchers. It’s a lot easier for them to move north and west from the wildlife refuge onto adjacent properties than it is to cross a river and international border. Texas currently has a fever tick epidemic that we haven’t been able to control. The reason for that is the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.”

Impractical treatment regimen

With current regulations, ranchers in these “infested” areas are required to follow a gathering and treatment regimen that is difficult to meet, McLaurin said. As required by the TAHC, ranchers must gather, treat and inspect 100 percent of their livestock, including cattle and horses on a regular basis. The only alternative is to vacate the premises.

“We wean calves once a year in the fall, and you go from that to having to gather every 28 days in the best case scenario; it’s just a really intrusive and labor-intensive process that you have to go through,” said Freddy Nieto, the general manager at the El Sauz Ranch near Raymondville, Texas. “You take that gathering cost that you have once a year and you start doing it once a month – I mean you’re margins are already tight under normal circumstances, and so it’s just unpractical.”

In an effort to set more “realistic” standards and to incentivize ranchers to stay on their property, the TSCRA submitted written and oral testimony at a recent TAHC meeting supporting the use of a new vaccine and highlighting other concerns with the current regulations.

TSCRA explained that vacating all livestock from the premises would cause fever ticks to move more rapidly through an area into uninfested cattle pastures. For that reason, TSCRA encouraged TAHC to have a set of practical rules that would not incentivize or leave ranchers with no practical or economical alternative.

In the statement, TSCRA proposed that the “infested premises be subdivided into prevalence levels that require a more practical and less frequent number of gatherings at lower prevalence levels.” TSCRA also recommended that adjacent and check premises not be required to abide by the same stringent treatment regime required at an infested premises.

TAHC chose not to implement any of the changes suggested by TSCRA at this time, but created a working group made up of affected producers to address each concern mentioned in TSCRA’s comments. Earlier this month, the commission announced the arrival of a new vaccine that will assist in eradication efforts.

As part of a five-year cooperative research and development between the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and Veterinary Services (VS) and Zoetis, the first doses of the vaccine were delivered to TAHC on May 17.

Plans are underway to host producer meetings in the counties along the permanent quarantine zone to provide information on the effectiveness of a new vaccine and to provide producers the opportunity to ask questions, TAHC said in a news release.  end mark

To learn more about the cattle fever tick and current eradication practices, visit the following links:

Cassidy Woolsey
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