Brucellosis: What are Economists doing?
By: Carolyn Hageman
Dannele Peck, an Agricultural and Applied Economics Associate Professor in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, has committed roughly seven and a half years to studying the economics of the brucellosis in the state of Wyoming.
Peck was hired to start a research project concerning the economic side of brucellosis. The project was to focus on all costs of the disease. In earlier studies, economists focused on the costs of brucellosis if: A) Your herd was de-populated, B) Your herd was quarantined and for how long, and C) you were a neighbor to a herd infected with Brucellosis. A former graduate student, Brian Wilson’s thesis was to work on those costs. Peck is working now on getting those extension bulletins out, as the drafts are still in the review process.
“In the past, if a cow in your herd was detected as being zero positive, that they have antibodies to brucellosis, your herd would get quarantined immediately,” Peck said, “The herd would also be depopulated and would cull the entire herd. Infected animals and non infected animals would all be wiped out.”
Wilson’s thesis work has provided a better understanding of the financial consequences a rancher would face if his herd got the disease. Ranchers want and need to know these financial consequences to determine the best practices for their operations.
Fortunately, only a quarantine processes is being used, and the whole herd depopulation strategies are a thing in the past. The quarantine process can last anywhere up to twelve months. Herds that are quarantined are not allowed to graze any pasture that borders another herd.
“For some ranchers that meant keeping their herd on a small part of the ranch with no grazing resources for 12 months,” said Peck, “You can only imagine the amount of feed you would have to buy for that, and how expensive that would be.”
After a positive blood test, the animal has to be slaughtered and tissue samples cultured for an accurate diagnosis. If bacteria grow, the samples are culture positive and the animal had the disease. If no bacteria grow, the samples are culture negative and either the tissue sample was bad or the animal did not have brucellosis.
“All these imperfections in our testing procedures are why we have to do all these expensive 12 month long quarantined processes or de-populate the whole herd. If we could figure out a perfect test that worked immediately, most of the cost of brucellosis would go away,” said Peck.
The bacteria in an aborted fetus of an elk may persist on the ground for up to 8 weeks and may easily be picked up by a cow. So another question that economists are working on involves the costs of delayed grazing in higher risk areas, and other preventative procedures.
“Now we understand what the consequences are if we get the disease, the second graduate student Trent Roberts’ job was to go and figure out how much does it cost to do each of these things being recommended,” said Peck.
Some of the preventative procedures included adult booster vaccination, delayed grazing, spaying all non-breeding heifers, and keeping elk off pastures a rancher plans on using. If a rancher’s herd of about 400 breeding animals catches brucellosis and they are quarantined for a year, Peck and graduate student Roberts have estimated that it would cost around $140,000 in hay costs.
“You need some sense of what the chances of your herd catching the disease are.” said Peck, “Suppose you think your herd faces a risk that you would expect that in the next 100 years your herd would get brucellosis once.”
This implies a 1% chance or 1/100 chance in any particular year. Peck and her graduate student determined with the estimated $140,000 hay costs, $1400 (140,000/100) would be the expected cost per year of getting brucellosis. To be financially prepared, you should save $1400 annually.
“Imagine there was something you could do to prevent your herd from getting it, how much would you be willing to pay for that management practice?” said Peck.
After researching the costs of different management practices, it was discovered that some activities are just too expensive and the cost of the cure was worse than getting the disease. Delayed grazing and hiring someone to keep elk away from areas you plan to graze don’t make financial sense for most ranchers. Management practices such as adult booster vaccinations, spaying heifers, and the game and fish hazing elk off of private property in the winter may potentially outweigh the cost of the disease.
Economists in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources are still in the process of determining the effectiveness of all management practices to give ranchers a better idea of what makes sense for their operations.