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Bovine tuberculosis: USDA approves 'split-state status' for Minnesota

GRAND FORKS - The U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved a "split-state status" for Minnesota in its fight against bovine tuberculosis, improving conditions for a great part of the state's cattle industry, state officials announced Thursday.

"This has been a long-awaited point in the process of dealing with TB in the state," said Joe Martin, assistant state ag commissioner and point man in the fight against TB. "It's really timely right now, because we are just in the middle of beginning our fall feeder cattle sales."

USDA agreed that, as of Thursday, most of the state can go back to the less restrictive "Modified Accredited Advanced" status. That would free producers from much of the testing required in the lower "Modified Accredited" status, where a zone in northwestern Minnesota, where the outbreak was found, will remain. The state's main trading partners, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota, have agreed to honor the split-state status, officials said. North Dakota hasn't yet, and Wisconsin has a law against it, said Bill Hartmann, state veterinarian. North Dakota still will require a special permit proving an animal is TB-free before it can be brought from Minnesota into the state, North Dakota's board of animal health announced Thursday.

Since the first animal was found to be infected with TB in early 2005, from a herd near Skime, Minn., 11 herds in the area were found to have infected animals and were "depopulated."

Although 425,000 cattle across the state have been tested the past three years, only 24 tested positive for TB, all in the 11 herds in the "TB zone," which includes parts of Marshall, Roseau, Beltrami and Lake of the Woods counties. Two dozen wild deer in or near the zone tested positive for TB the past two years.

About 300 cattle producers in and near that TB zone will have to continue a regime of testing their herds, and some of them will sell off their herds. Forty-five of those producers have accepted buyouts and will sell their animals by Jan. 31. Twenty-seven others have, or plan to, put up high, state-subsidized fences to keep the deer away Hartmann said.

"So far, about 1,300 of the 6,000 animals that have to be removed have been removed," Hartmann said.

Under the MAA status, the rest of the state's producers will find it easier and less expensive to market their cattle and move them out of state, although some TB testing still will be required, especially for breeding stock. Plus, the great part of Minnesota could win back TB-free status from USDA as soon as two years from now, Hartmann said.

Meanwhile, DNR officials will test 1,800 deer killed by hunters or federal sharpshooters or landowners in the next few months within or near the TB zone.

Martin said it's not clear yet how much the TB outbreak has cost the state's cattle industry. But the state government has spent "well in excess of $5 million" on it, he said.

Nearly all the cattle sold out of northwest Minnesota go to the auctions at Bagley Livestock or Winger Livestock, both owned by Billy Bushelle and Joe Varner. Bagley Livestock had its weekly auction Thursday and the TB announcement was the talk, said Bushelle.

"Well, it's good news for all the producers that are not in the (TB) zone," he said. "For the greatest part of Minnesota, it just eliminated all their extra testing, so of course, that is great for us, Because we want to see more markets and more accessible markets, for our people. This makes it easier for us to market cattle for people."

But for the producers in the TB zone "will be strapped with this for at least another five years, so it's not something to be taken lightly."

Bushelle said there's little doubt that the depopulation and buyout of herds in and around the TB zone will permanently decrease the cattle population in that area.

"There will be a considerable amount of people who will not get back into the cattle business," he said. "If it was only one year, it's easy to jump back in. But when you have to wait five years down the road, your pasture and fences go to heck. I'm sure that zone will never regain those numbers that were in there."