Roundup: Scraping for cattle fever ticks is just part of life on the ranch

LAGUNA VISTA — Turns out, cows don’t like being herded into chutes, poked, locked in a head gate and spiked in the neck with a shot against cattle fever ticks.

A lot of ranchers aren’t too keen on the inspection protocols in and around cattle fever tick quarantine zones, either.

But for Danny Davis yesterday at his 1,500-acre cow-calf operation at his Laguna Vista pasture, his cattle turned out tick-free. In the ranching game, that’s just about good enough.

“Not even a dog tick,” Davis said loudly over the pitiful bellowing of cows and the near-constant rattle and clang of hoof, horn and head hitting the steel chutes and gates which make the inspection possible.

“Red heifer, eighty-fourteen!” yells out an inspector as an identifying ear tag is pinned to a calf and recorded on a hand-held computer.

The cattle fever tick is in the midst of one of its periodic irruptions northward out of Mexico, beyond the Permanent Cattle Fever Tick Quarantine Zone along the Rio Grande and into north Cameron and Willacy counties, all the way to Live Oak County.

In all, nearly 550,000 Texas acres are in the permanent or in temporary cattle fever tick quarantine zones. Inspections like this one near Laguna Vista are mandatory for herds in the zones.

At risk is the $11.7 billion a year Texas beef industry, which can be infected with a parasite the ticks carry which causes babeosis in cattle. The disease can cause them to lose weight or even die.

Which is why there are seven inspectors present this morning from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Texas Animal Health Commission.

“We’ve got one down!” yells out a ranch hand as a cow slips and falls in one of the chutes, a common occurrence, but also one which draws a fast response to get her back on her feet, since an animal could suffer serious injury.

The tick inspection process at Davis’ ranch is like a dance choreographed in dusty detail.

The cattle, say six to 10 at a time, are culled from the main herd in a larger corral to a switchback of smaller wooden chutes until they come to the yellow steel crowding chute.

The crowding chute can hold three to four head of cattle, more if they’re calves, and then one by one they are released into two black steel scratching chutes.

That’s where the inspectors gently lift the tail so they don’t get whacked in the face, and run their eyes and hands under the hip of the cattle, trying to locate a tick in the most likely of places.

Once the inspection is complete and new numbered ear tags are affixed to the cow, the animal moves into the final chute where an illusion of freedom leads to a short running burst that ends with a loud bang against the crash gate.

Momentum stopped, a ranch hand then traps the cow’s head in the head gate, and the vaccination is administered with a power hypodermic linked by a plastic tube to a reservoir of an insecticide related to ivermectin, and a worming agent.

Chelsea Pike, a veterinarian with the TAHC, is the woman with the auto-vaccine gun.

The final chute has a scale under it, which weighs the cow and automatically adjusts the dosage of vaccine injected.

“I’m out here whenever they have a large herd for testing,” Pike said. “Other times I could be up in the Panhandle, so it’s kind of variable.”

The slow flow of cattle into the chutes continues cow by cow, bull by bull, calf by calf. Davis is carving out some of his stock into a separate pen for sale.

“This one goes over there!” he tells one of the hands, who quickly opens a different gate for a young bull destined for new pastures.

With the exception of Silvano Amaya up top overseeing the crowding chute, the rest of the crew isn’t wearing cowboy hats, just baseball caps.

But cowboy boots and jeans are well-represented, and in the back pocket of one of those pairs of Wranglers is the tell-tale circle of a can of dip, possibly Skoal or Kodiak, or maybe Copenhagen.

The cows and bulls are big animals, and none too happy with the situation. Communication between the hands and the inspectors is crucial in keeping both cattle and human from being injured.

“This one’s got a bad udder here,” says one of the hands. “No, the black one!”

Davis says despite being surrounded by cattle fever tick-infected land, and white-tailed deer and nilgai that also carry the ticks, his cows are proving tick-free because of the double ear tags he affixes to the cattle.

The tags are like the flea collar for your dog, impregnated with an insecticide which gradually seeps out to prevent ticks from latching on to the cows.

“I put two tags on them, one in each ear, and that’s a preventative as well, as far as keeping them from getting ticks,” said Davis, who said few other ranchers go to so much trouble.

“It works for about six months,” he said.

Abel Perez is an inspector with the USDA, an agency extremely concerned about the spread of the cattle fever tick. He says federal inspectors scrape cows for ticks “as often as we can.”

“Every time a rancher gets their cattle together and they want to scratch, we’ll do it anywhere,” he said. “We’ve got a very cooperative gentleman here … this is great.”

Four hot and dusty hours later the din from the cattle chutes begins to subside, and the deeper WHUFF! WHUFF! WHUFF! from nearby wind turbines in the San Roman Wind Farm can now be heard. Several of the turbines are on Davis’ property.

The aroma of an al fresco ranch lunch is now competing with the smell of cows. The meal consists of grilled beef (naturally) fajitas, rice and charro beans.

So 123 head of cattle have been scraped for ticks, vaccinated, prodded and sent on their way, or at least back to the big corral from which they came.

“Wait! Here’s one more!” a ranch hand yells out as he pushes a tiny dark-red calf out of the crowding chute, nudging it forward with his knees.

The newborn bull calf’s umbilical cord is still wet, a sign he was born last night.

So No. 124 is herded gently through the chutes, and stumbles off to find his mother.

He’s last, and most definitely least.