Fever Pitch: As state board ponders easing cattle tick rules, some cry foul

HARLINGEN — A controversial proposal to ease rules regulating treatment of livestock for cattle fever ticks is headed for a vote this week.

Tomorrow, the Texas Animal Health Commission board will take up a plan which, if enacted, would change decades-old rules to allow the TAHC executive director to waive roundup and treatment requirements for livestock on selected properties.

Complying with the fever tick rules is a burdensome — and expensive — proposition for ranchers. All livestock must be gathered, sent through chutes for inspection, and then be dipped to kill all ticks. This must occur as often as every two weeks until the ticks are gone.

A question of scale

The new rule, if approved, would eliminate costly and labor-intensive cattle roundups, inspection and treatment for any property ruled exempt. These fever tick protocols are deeply resented by many ranchers due to cost, time involved and injuries cattle can suffer.

Some ranchers believe political pressure is being put on TAHC by big ranching interests, and some of the ranches in South Texas are as big as they get.

“All they’re doing is targeting us, and I hate to say it, but I’m half-white and half-Mexican, and they’re giving the white boys a free ride,” said Laguna Vista rancher Danny Davis, who has 130 head of cattle in a cow-calf operation on 1,500 acres in Cameron County.

“You’ve got to be fair,” he added. “You want to follow the law and gather my cattle? Then the Yturria, the King Ranch and the Armstrong boys need to gather up their cattle, too.”

Cody Fry is ranch manager for the Armstrong Ranch in Kenedy County, which is about 43,000 acres. Fry says he backs the proposed changes in the regulatory process when it comes to fever tick rules.

“The amendment doesn’t do anything except basically provides for the designated epidemiologist, with the approval of the executive director, in my opinion to use his common sense when you need to make the program work more efficiently,” Fry said.

“Large producers, small producers, it doesn’t matter,” Fry added. “I think this rule is good for everybody.”

Robert J. Underbrink, president and CEO of the King Ranch with more than 800,000 acres spread across Texas, did not return a call seeking comment for this story.

Frank Yturria, owner of the Yturria Ranch, replied and said he has made no comment on the proposed changes to the cattle fever tick treatment protocols.

Ticks march north

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.

At risk is the $11.7 billion a year Texas beef industry. Cattle can be infected with a parasite the ticks carry which causes babeosis and can cause them to lose weight or die.

The Texas Cattle Fever Tick Eradication Program is the oldest eradication program in the state and mandates a 100 percent treatment schedule for infested premises or adjacent pastures. State officials say it has been the most effective method of eradicating ticks north of the border in the shortest amount of time.

But Davis believes easing the old rules could create a permanent reservoir of cattle fever ticks far north of the permanent quarantine zone, which stretches along the border from Del Rio to Brownsville.

“They’re changing a hundred-year-old law that was in place to eradicate ticks, and what you’re going to have is a haven for ticks in areas up there because you’re not going to be able to check them,” Davis said.

A spokesman for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association declined to comment for this story, referring instead to a letter of support for the changes the group submitted to TAHC.

In the letter, the cattlemen’s organization president, Richard Thorpe, said his group supports the rules change.

“TSCRA strongly suggests that TAHC regulations include flexibility in the gathering frequency and treatment regime they require for livestock based on fever tick prevalence of the premises, pasture size, labor available, livestock temperament, time since last gathered and other unique gathering challenges of the quarantined property.”

The cattle association also recommended that pastures adjacent to those found to have ticks be allowed less frequent livestock gatherings and a less stringent treatment regimen.

A TAHC spokesperson did not respond to emails seeking comment for this story.

The view from the corral

Steven Parker has a cattle operation in eastern Cameron County, and he has a special insight into the fever tick protocols because he once worked as a tick inspector with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Just because those big ranches have money and power doesn’t place them above the regulations and the rules and the laws and all this other …,” Parker said. “And as far as TAHC is concerned, in my opinion they need to go fly a kite, and step out of the way and let USDA do the job.”

Gustavo Garza runs cattle near Bayview, and in his view, the problem for him being so close to Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge is both white-tailed deer and nilgai on the refuge also can carry the cattle fever tick.

“I’m a small cattle rancher, under 60 head, three little places,” he said. “I’ve been inspected, my cattle scratched, they’ve been dipped, and so far not a single tick has been found on my premises or any of my cattle.

“But I still have to dip,” he said. “If they’re going to make a change it needs be a change intended to be more efficient and productive in dealing with the tick problem, not just making my life miserable.”

Juan Delgadillo has about 3,000 acres in Cameron County and used to have 278 head of cattle but with losses due to stresses on the cattle while dipping them for ticks, he’s pulled back until the tick crisis passes.

“I’ve still got the ranch because I’m hoping this thing is going to get over pretty quick and I’m going to buy some more cows,” he said. “You can’t do what they want you to do, gather them up every two weeks, and then the cycle starts again for another six months or another year.

“They wipe you out — they completely destroy you,” he said. “Right now, today, they’re here checking my cows, the five ones that I still have.”

Davis has two pastures near Laguna Vista, and his cows had been tick-free for two years. But recently he said inspectors found five ticks on animals in his herd at one of the pastures.

His response to the regulations now that ticks have been found illustrate how strict they can be.

“So now I’m having to bring them in every 14 days and then the bulls, I was going to sell, so those I had to spray every seven days so I’ve been busy with the cattle here in the last couple of weeks,” he said. “This is the first spraying so I’ll be spraying them one more time and if they’re clean they go to every 28 days.”

Complying with cattle fever tick treatment protocols is costly even for small cattle operations. For big ones, those with hundreds of thousands of acres of grazing land, it can be very expensive indeed.

“Tough — then they need to get out of the business,” Davis said. “All those guys have oil and gas wells subsidizing the cattle. They’ll run the little guy out of business. The big guy is going to stay in business because of selective enforcement.

“This is not the 1800s,” Davis said.

For his part, the Armstrong Ranch’s Fry says he’s concerned the proposals from TAHC have set some ranchers against each other when they should be united in fighting the cattle fever tick.

“We’re all in this together,” Fry said.

“We ranch to make a living, and we ranch to make a profit for our owners and family members,” he said. “If the rules are so stringent that it’s pushing us out of business, that’s not good for the fever tick eradication program and it’s not good for the cattle industry.

“We want to help, but it can’t be to the extent that it’s not financially feasible or sustainable.”

Tick rule proposed changes

“The purpose of the amendment is to provide the Designated Fever Tick Epidemiologist, with the approval of the Executive Director, the discretion to approve inspections, dipping, treatments and/or vaccination requirements that are less stringent than those currently prescribed, taking into consideration the circumstances of the affected producer, and the commission’s overarching goal to encourage producers to maintain cattle on affected premises.”

Texas Animal Health Commission

Permanent quarantine area

Permanent cattle fever tick quarantine zone ranges from 200 yards to 10 miles wide along the Rio Grande in the United States. The strip of land extends 500 miles through eight South Texas counties from Devils River to the Gulf of Mexico. It was created as a buffer zone to Mexico, where fever ticks are common. This zone is intended to monitor tick incursions from Mexico and allow them to be detected and eliminated quickly, so that cattle in the zone do not spread fever ticks into the interior of the state.

Southern Cameron County is within this zone.