Politics & Government

California eyes destruction of dairy herds struck by TB

WASHINGTON — Taxpayers could foot a hefty bill following the recent discovery of bovine tuberculosis in three California herds.

On Tuesday, top Agriculture Department officials will tour the affected dairy farms in Fresno and Tulare counties as a prelude to tough decisions on whether to destroy the herds and make multi-million dollar payouts that farmers are still likely to find inadequate.

"You're talking a lot of money," Andrew House, press secretary for U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, whose district includes the affected area.

Dairy farmers with herds infected by bovine tuberculosis face several uncomfortable options. They can endure a quarantine until testing proves the herd is clean again, which can take several years. Or, they can destroy the entire herd — "depopulate" is the preferred term — in exchange for Agriculture Department payments.

The Agriculture Department currently provides farmers that destroy their entire herd with payments of up to $3,000 per animal. The three affected San Joaquin Valley herds have 1,100, 4,800 and 14,000 head of cattle, respectively. That adds up to $59.7 million for the three herds.

That's still less than what the farmers think their herds are worth, however.

The Agriculture Department delegation to the infected farms is led Undersecretary of Agriculture Bruce Knight. Knight oversees the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, among other agencies. Accompanied by the department’s senior veterinarian, Knight is meeting with farmers, California state veterinarian Dr. Richard Breitmeyer and others.

The affected California herds have been quarantined but not publicly identified. For now, California cattle being shipped out of state will be subjected to additional testing.

The Agriculture Department has paid to depopulate dairy herds for many years. In 1980, the department set payment rates of $750 for cattle infected by tuberculosis and $450 for cattle exposed to tuberculosis.

In 2002, officials significantly boosted the maximum potential payments to $3,000 per animal.

"The disparity between the amount that (the government) could pay for an animal destroyed because of tuberculosis and its appraised value (had) made some owners reluctant to immediately remove a suspect animal from a herd," the Agriculture Department explained at the time.

Even with the increase, though, some farmers believe the payments are too small. Michael Marsh, chief executive officer of the Modesto-based Western United Dairymen, noted that milk prices are currently high, raising the value of dairy cattle. Prices also rise when the cattle are formally registered as belonging to the Jersey or Holstein breed.

"The question is, is the compensation that's going to be made available adequate?" Marsh said.

Bovine TB is a contagious disease that can prove fatal to cattle, bison, goats and other species. The disease can be transmitted to humans through direct contact or consumption of raw milk, but not pasteurized milk.

Between 2002 and 2007, the Agriculture Department provided about $90 million in indemnity payments for dairy farmers. News reports in 2002, for instance, noted that Tulare County’s Fresian Farm Dairy was likely to receive indemnity payments of some $12.8 million for the slaughter of its herd.