A deadly tick is fueling a squabble between Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, cattle raisers and several governmental agencies, and the health of Texas’ beef industry could suffer without a timely solution, a spokesman for the Waco-based Texas Farm Bureau said Wednesday.
At issue is the use of so-called cattle spray boxes, in which livestock are sprayed with a chemical to eliminate cattle fever ticks. The arachnids spread bovine babesiosis, a malady that kills 90 percent of the animals it infects, according to the Texas Animal Health Commission. The commission supports use of the portable devices.
But Miller has pulled the plug on the boxes, claiming he has received reports of cattle dying after exposure to chemicals in poorly ventilated units. He believes the boxes are particularly hazardous to small calves and older cattle, agriculture department spokesman Mark Loeffler said.
The Texas Animal Health Commission responded to Miller’s action with a press release stating the boxes are a proven tool in preventing disease in cattle.
“Portable spray boxes have been utilized for decades and have proven very effective in our containment and eradication efforts,” Texas State Veterinarian and commission director Andy Schwartz wrote. “It is important to note that over the years of state and federal use, there has been no indication the application of Coumaphos (insecticide) in spray boxes has led to cattle deaths. Because spray boxes are portable units, we can take the fight to where the ticks are.”
The commission had identified 919 cattle exposed to fever ticks in 82 Texas counties since Sept. 1, 2016, and spray boxes have allowed for safe and efficient treatment, Schwartz wrote. Parts of nine Texas counties on the southern border have permanent quarantines in place limiting movement of cattle and some game animals susceptible to the ticks.
Still, Miller has halted use of 15 cattle fever tick spray boxes in South Texas last month, according to a press release. The boxes did not have adequate ventilation, which violates federally-approved label requirements for the insecticide, according to the press release.
Miller was scheduled to meet Tuesday in Austin with representatives of the animal health commission and the United States Department of Agriculture-Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to discuss the issue, according to another press release from his office. Loeffler said the representatives failed to show, though in a separate meeting, Miller met with representatives of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.
Miller was prepared to offer a compromise “that would allow the boxes in South Texas to reopen immediately, but state and federal agencies weren’t around to hear it,” according to the press release.
“It’s hard to make a deal with thin air,” Miller wrote. “I’ve got a proposal to get those spray boxes open again, but everyone has to come to the table. That’s what Texans expect. Running and hiding isn’t the way we do business in Texas.”
Loeffler said Miller wrote a letter to the agencies offering to allow the spray boxes to resume operation for 45 days while a permanent solution to the ventilation problem is created and submitted to his office. Miller also planned to ask for an exemption so that a percentage of more vulnerable cattle, including calves, would not have to be treated for the ticks.
Miller also suggested an option that would allow the cow’s head to be held outside the spray box, in a head gate, while the insecticide is applied.
Texas Farm Bureau spokesman Gene Hall said late Wednesday he had hoped to report the matter had been resolved.
“That is not the case,” Hall said. “The Texas Farm Bureau supports the cattle raisers. They need to be spraying right now. Every day they miss, cattle are being put in jeopardy. At the least, we need a short-term solution.”
The USDA did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday.
Animal health commission spokeswoman Callie Ward said in an email response to questions that her agency “is currently working with our state and federal partners to resume spray box use and resolve label interpretation.”
Coumaphos treatment has been approved for use in spray boxes by the Environmental Protection Agency since the 1970s, according to a commission press release.
Spray boxes allow treatment on-site, “eliminating the need to potentially stress and overheat the cattle by trucking them to a dip vat location,” according to the press release.
Cattle fever ticks’ life cycle requires the commission and the USDA to treat animals every 7 to 14 days for six to nine months.
Cattle fever ticks have plagued portions of Texas and 12 other southern states since 1893, resulting in “massive death losses,” according to the association’s press release. Federal and state efforts have limited outbreaks in the United States, and the lack of a tick control program in Mexico has required the quarantine zone along the border to remain active, the press release states.
Austin Brown III, whose family has raised cattle in Bee County for decades and who serves as a director for the Texas and Southwest Cattle Raisers, said he attended the meeting in Austin with the agriculture commissioner.
“Without tools to control these ticks, we run the risk of their spreading northward,” Brown said. “I’ve never had any trouble with spray boxes, and without their use, I believe there is a threat to local and state herds, even beyond. I thank the commissioner for hearing us out, and I believe the various agencies will come together to work out what I believe is a minor labeling issue. In the meantime, we cattle raisers need to use those boxes.”