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State on the lookout for infected deer on area farms

ALPENA — Cows in northern Michigan have, in the past few months, been startled by regular nighttime visitors wielding clipboards.

In an effort to reduce the incidence of bovine tuberculosis in Northeast Michigan, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has begun a program of regularly scheduled visits to area cattle farms to assess and reduce the number of deer coming into contact with local herds.

Deer can be carriers of bovine TB, according to Emily Sewell, wildlife health specialist for the northern Lower Peninsula with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. The disease can be passed “nose to nose,” Sewell said, similar to one human with a cold coughing on another.

But it is more likely to be shared the way a sick child might share his or her germs: through bacterial transmission via saliva. While cows and deer aren’t likely to share a spoon or make out in the backseat of their dad’s car, they do share food. Tempted by an easy meal, infected deer can nose around cattle’s food, leaving traces of illness behind.

The newly-introduced program, which began in summer 2018, calls for 12 nighttime visits a year to each farm in Deer Management Area 452, which includes parts of Alpena, Montmorency, Alcona and Oscoda counties. The visits are conducted by five staff members, who have been working to establish relationships with the farmers and explain the need for the program.

The visits include surveillance of the cattle farm and targeted deer removal from specific areas, Sewell said. The purpose is to determine if any deer are habitually using cattle areas — “repeat offenders,” Sewell calls them — and then remove those repeat offenders to reduce the risk of TB transmission to cattle.

Infrared equipment and night vision devices are used to detect deer in cattle pastures and feed storage areas. If deer can be shot safely at that time, officials will do so and inform the landowner, Sewell said.

In the past, farmers have been able to request a visit from state officials when they suspected a TB transmission risk, but mandatory visits as a preventive measure are a new step.

The hope, according to Sewell, is to reduce the number of infected herds in the future by minimizing the presence of deer on cattle farms, hopefully combatting a recent spike in bovine TB, which jeopardizes the cattle business in Northeast Michigan and, potentially, the entire state.

Farmers have been understanding of the new program, Sewell said. While some have asked that the surveillance be conducted only from the road, others have welcomed staff onto their farms and shown appreciation for the efforts being made to protect their cattle.

Sewell is pleased that the program is going smoothly. It’s an important tool in fighting a deadly disease on behalf of our state’s farmers, protecting them from even one infected deer that could bring down a whole herd.

“There’s no way to know if the deer is positive or not, but there’s a zero-tolerance policy of deer on farms from MDARD now,” Sewell said. “We are at the point where we just have to assume that that deer could be the one that could transmit the disease to your cattle.”

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or jriddle@thealpenanews.com.