Johne’s disease is a wasting disease with no cure. It is found in more than 50% of dairy herds in the U.S. and can affect beef cattle, sheep and goats. Last week I shared the first part of this story, covering the discovery of the disease in my research goat herd, our first look at how widely it might have spread, and our first plans for what to do about the 35 pregnant does and their coming offspring. Here’s what happened next.
I begin the process of “depopulating” the herd.
Testing all the wethers and young animals in my herd was cost-prohibitive and, because of the variability of tests at the time, it would be hard to ensure that negative tests were accurate. In addition, I was already stretching my luck by insisting that the does not be euthanized. I was left with no choice but to “depopulate” the herd.
First, I wanted to ensure that no other goat producer would have my Johne’s nightmare experience, so I decided to send all the Boer cross yearlings from the previous year’s kidding to slaughter. If you’ll recall from Part 1, I thought the two Johne’s infected goats were simply having a hard time competing for food. So to make it easier for them, I put them in with all my young animals. Research indicates that younger animals are much more susceptible to the disease, and in this case, all the animals in the group were under 18 months of age. Their age also meant that it would be unlikely that testing would show whether or not they were infected. I had sealed their fate with that one move.
Next I had to decide what to do with the rest of the herd, many of whom had been with me for five years. If I was not going to test them, I was directed to send them to slaughter. Goat meat is not popular in Logan, and though I called around to several halal markets in Salt Lake City, I was unable to find a buyer for them. The only solution was to begin loading them and hauling them to the sale barn.
Know what the laws are in your state.
I was told by Utah State University staff and the State Veterinarian that as the goats traveled from their pens to the sale barn and then the slaughter house, they would have to be tracked by federal paperwork designed to ensure that the animals were slaughtered and not used for breeding purposes. This made it very difficult to sell the animals or to get a reasonable price for them.
Then, I spent one afternoon with a federal investigator from the Department of Agriculture after someone who purchased my goats failed to take them directly to slaughter, breaking the chain of paperwork. Two weeks later, the State Veterinarian, who had set the investigators on me, directed me to break the rules imposed by the paperwork and haul animals to a facility where they would be held for several weeks to a month prior to slaughter. I refused to do this because, as he’d told me earlier, it was against the law. I was stuck and I was angry.
The state veterinarian’s suggestion didn’t sit well with me, so I went to the library and began looking up the laws governing disposal of animals with Johne’s. I learned the paperwork the State Veterinarian had made me fill out was only required for those animals positively identified as having the disease. It did not apply to my untested animals. Since my animals had not been tested, there was no paperwork, and no requirement to ensure their slaughter. I knew the University would not budge on letting them stay on the property, but this gave me the time I needed to find a halal butcher who could take them over time. It also meant I could put together a testing protocol that would use them to save the herd of does and their babies.
Are the Does Infected?
I wanted to build a case for a clean bill of health for the does. To do this, I needed to demonstrate that Johne’s had not spread throughout the herd.
A USU veterinarian helped me develop a testing protocol that would give us a good idea about the spread of the disease. First, we tested some of the goats that were headed to slaughter, selecting for those that had spent the most time with the Johne’s positive goats. Using the results, I then selected animals for euthanasia and necropsy who were most at risk based on:
1) the long period of time they had been with the Johne’s positive animals,
2) their age at the time they were introduced to the herd (less than 18 months), or
3) relatively high Serum/Positive numbers (the higher the number the greater the possibility of infection).
I was trying to select animals most at risk to increase the probability of finding Johne’s in the herd, if it existed. Eight animals total were necropsied including two does who had spent three summers with the original herd of wethers, four wethers who were from the original herd from which Pancho and Francisco had come, and two three year old wethers who had been introduced to the herd when they were approximately 9 months of age. All were negative for Johne’s. I am indebted to Dr. Tom Baldwin and Dr. Ramona Skriptunas for their diagnostic assistance, to Dr. Becky Manning for her willingness to provide ideas and solutions, and to Dr. Howard Bingham for his assistance in designing this test and his kindness to me and the animals euthanized.
Though this testing did not save any animals already slated for disposal, six months and another round of negative tests later, the State Veterinarian agreed that it was highly unlikely the does were infected and they were released from quarantine. The does went on to do demonstration fire break construction for the University and a small community south of Salt Lake City, Utah. Their kids were all healthy and joined the Camp Williams work force during the summer of 2003.
Some lessons learned
Call a vet when you see something unusual in your herd.
If I had gotten help in the beginning, I wouldn’t have put the two sick goats with my young animals, and they wouldn’t have been put at risk. I just didn’t know any better.
Read the rules yourself.
I made the mistake of trusting others’ interpretation of the law. Thanks to the internet, this is so much easier today than it was two decades ago.
Sometimes even scientists don’t believe in science.
When I went to the first meeting to discuss what to do about my goat herd, I was armed with the latest science and some reasonable ways to go about determining the infection rate of the herd. Based on the science and on my management of the animals, I knew it was highly unlikely the infection was widespread, so I thought there would be a reasonable solution. But the scientists didn’t listen to any of that. I could see how fearful they were of Johne’s and that’s all they could think about. There was no science that could win them over.
Find allies that can stand up for you.
The culture I was working in at the time discounted my input for two reasons. First, I wasn’t a PhD. Second, I was female and living in Utah, a place that had rigid boundaries for what a woman could and couldn’t do. The work I was doing was well outside those boundaries. In hindsight, I would have done well to find a male, PhD ally to present to the scientists and work with the State Veterinarian. It’s not something I should have had to do, and that still grates on me. But it’s something that women often have to deal with in this field.
My persistence did pay off. Because I wouldn’t give up, because I presented them with more and more data, and because they remembered they were scientists, ultimately they agreed with me and the does and their kids were saved.
It’s been really painful to relive this in writing for you, so I hope that it does prove useful. If you have questions, please send them on to me.
Julie Smith, DVM, wanted to add a comment but had technical difficulties. So I’m adding it on her behalf:
I appreciate your sharing the story of your experience with Johne’s disease. Veterinarians sometimes overlook the risk it poses to small ruminants in addition to cattle. Across bovine dairy herds, the prevalence has only gotten worse. A 2010 paper estimated herd-level prevalence in Utah and surrounding areas as at least ~40% (based on bulk milk sampling). The 2007 NAHMS Dairy study found the causative organism for Johne’s in environmental samples collected on 68% (over 2/3!) of dairy farms. This also represents an underestimate due to imperfect sensitivity of the sampling method.
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