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Taking the bull by the horns, Big Rok Angus overcomes state's TB scare

Kevin Olson and his family withstood six years of tight exporting regulations after cattle in northwestern Minnesota tested positive for bovine tuberculosis. Although his herd remained TB-free through it all, Big Rok still paid a big price in vaccinations and customer loss.1 / 2
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When Kevin Olson started up Big Rok Angus with his family about five miles northwest of Detroit Lakes, he knew there'd be some risk involved.

"In this industry, diseases are always a concern," said Olson, "You're always one day away from something happening that could interfere with your ability to raise cattle."

So when a cattle rancher from up in northwestern Minnesota found out one of his animals had bovine tuberculosis, it sent shock waves throughout the state.

Word of the disease spread like wildfire, and the Minnesota market was quickly closed.

Fifty-eight herds were destroyed, and Minnesota cattlemen were all testing their animals for TB, including Olson.

The good news was, his herd was TB-free; the bad news was, he was about to take a big financial hit anyway.

"Even after they were tested, they had to be tested again to get into another state," said Olson, "and with the stigma that Minnesota had TB, a lot of the commercial guys .... the buyers didn't want to come to Minnesota and buy."

Technically, they could export out of state, but there were an incredible number of hoops to jump through.

And not even modern science, which proved Olson's animals were clean, could earn the trust of many out-of-state buyers.

"North Dakota would not allow anything in ... tested, TB-free ... nothing," said Olson, who says he lost about 25 percent of Big Rok's buyers.

To add insult to injury, he says the geography of the problem didn't make any sense.

"You could go to the complete western edge of ND, and they were closer to the people in Minnesota with the affected herds," said Olson, "They were probably 50 to 60 miles away from those herds and they were considered clean, while we were 150 miles away and we weren't."

For six long years, the strict regulations remained.

The state of Minnesota spent roughly $14 million battling the problem, as it compensated cattlemen for their destroyed herds.

Thousands of head of cattle were killed in the efforts.

Meanwhile, Olson was forced to keep double-testing his 200-300 animals every year, spending considerable time and money on the process, which he was only reimbursed for one year.

"It cost me $3,000 to $4,000 a year for the vaccinations, but in real money with our inability to move cattle and sell cattle to other states, it was tens of thousands of dollars," said Olson.

But Big Rok Angus survived, and things are looking up.

Two months ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared Minnesota TB-free, opening markets back up again.

Olson says although he believes there is still a bit of stigma attached to Minnesota cattle, it's slowly but surely turning around.

"We're getting calls again for our sale, and it seems like there are more North Dakota and South Dakota people that are willing to come back up and look again," said Olson, who says it's disease scares like this that have him changing the way he produces.

He says he's now getting pretty close to closing his herd so that he only has to buy one new bull every few years.

"We'll use a lot of our own cattle, but also with the use of artificial insemination and embryo transplant, we can introduce genetics into our herd without introducing some of the problems that can come with cattle," said Olson, who not only loves the security of genetics, but also the whole idea of it.

He's been involved in the genetics end of the field since 1991, with his cattle being scientifically spread all over the U.S. and even into South America.

He says not only does this eliminate disease in his herd, but improves the quality of his animals as well.

"It's not just like raising a commodity," said Olson, "we're trying to breed something that's superior to what everyone else has. When I'm long gone, I want people to say, 'Big Rok Angus, they have pretty good cattle.' That's what I want to see accomplished."

(St. Paul Bureau reporter Don Davis contributed to this story)