Finally a balanced article. It is long but well worth the read.
The Rebel Cow Farmer
Greg Niewendorp was a passing blip on the TV news last week, but it�s a blip that will likely balloon. Niewendorp has started a needed conversation about the industrialization of our food supply, and the liberties of people�both farmers and consumers�who don�t want to be part of it.
Last week, in an act of civil disobedience, Niewendorp forced the Michigan Department of Agriculture to obtain a search warrant before coming onto his farm to put radio frequency ID chips on his cattle and to test his cattle for bovine tuberculosis.
SHERIFF RIDES INTO COW TOWN
The scene was peaceful. Charlevoix County Sheriff George Lasater read the search warrant while Niewendorp and 10 supporters stood and listened on an unusually hot fall morning. Niewendorp�s supporters, including one woman who worked on a TB project in Nepal years ago, peppered the key state official, Bridget Patrick, with questions about the $10 million bovine TB eradication program. After about 30 minutes of this, the two techs and the state veterinarian hiked the hills of 160 acres of pastureland to find, catch, and do the skin test on the cattle. It took them the entire day.
Niewendorp lives in the middle of a very quiet nowhere in East Jordan, raising about 20 herd of dairy and beef cattle and one hog. He rotates his cows on 40 different pastures, riding his horse and using a herd dog. In winter, the cows eat hay. Like a lot of small-scale farmers, he slaughters the cows himself and �gives� to friends and family.
His homestead is reminiscent of the kids� tale of Old MacDonald�s farm - and starkly contrasts with the Kansas feedlots of 38,000 head of confined cattle. It wasn�t lost on anyone standing at Niewendorp�s farm that the nation just suffered its second largest recall of meat in history�more than 21 million pounds of frozen hamburger patties suspected of E. coli bacteria contamination �a byproduct of feedlot cows forced to stand in their own manure for months on end.
Niewendorp�s own farm began as a political rebirth. A fifth generation farmer, Niewendorp, 54, grew up on an Iowa farm and saw his father play by the rules in the 1960s, employing �modern management techniques.� His dad amped up his beef herd and each year, confined the animals, and tried to �manage� the pools of liquid manure, which created a penetrating stench on the farm. But �bigger� meant broker, and the family farm went belly-up.
There is no stench on Niewendorp�s farm because the cattle are not confined. Niewendorp said the factory farm system heightens the risk of disease, which has led to the birth of the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). Its goal is to track every animal from birth to death, and all the movements in between, with the radio frequency IDs that look like white buttons. Supporters say that tagging animals with a 15-digit ID will make the food supply safer. The USDA aims to register all meat producers by January of 2009.
The idea of the NAIS�voluntary in most states�is to quickly identify the source of an infected animal and to protect citizens from terrorists who contaminate the food supply. Farmers will have to log in every �event� of an animal�s life, such as going to a fair, trucking them to another farm, or participating in a rodeo. Not just cattle, but also pet ponies, 4-H animals, and backyard chickens (not fish, though). Scanners at the slaughter house read the chips, much like a grocery store wand reads the price of milk.
Niewendorp said small farmers can scarcely afford the burden of logging and reporting every event of every animal�s life.
The state switched to the RFIDs in March, but was already tracking cattle with metal tags. Niewendorp believes they are using the bovine TB issue as a guise to comply with the NAIS, although state officials say it�s simply quicker, with less room for error.
�These tags make me part of the system, and I have never agreed to that,� he said.
David Gumpert, a writer for Businessweek.com with the blog, thecompletepatient.com, has followed Niewendorp�s story since last winter. He calls his actions �a rebellion of the factory food system.�
�This all ties into nutritional freedom and the growing resentment and suspicion of our country�s whole food supply. A bigger issue than NAIS and raw milk and bovine TB is the integrity of the food system. What you�re seeing is the reaction of increasing numbers of people buying local. What Greg really does is sell directly to local consumers. Unfortunately, the state�s view will take away the individual�s right to self-police, and to knowingly buy meat from cattle that hasn�t been tested for bovine TB or injected with antibiotics or hormones, precisely because that meat is clean.�
TEST OR CONSEQUENCES
On the other side of this issue is Bridget Patrick, the bovine TB eradication project coordinator from the Michigan Department of Community Health and liaison MDA.
She believes that Niewendorp has a right to his opinion, but says it�s a straightforward issue: the state simply wants to protect the public from the risk of contracting bovine tuberculosis, and to stop its spread from wild deer herds to domestic cattle. The test is free, she said, and Niewendorp owes his customers the assurance of safe meat. (As a note, all commercial cattle have been federally inspected for TB at slaughter facilities since 1959; no one, to Patrick�s knowledge, has been sickened by eating a TB cow.)
�The thing is, we have to test for TB because it is in the deer herds, and if we don�t find it in the cattle, it can go from cattle to healthy deer. So although this person doesn�t want to participate in the testing program, he�s jeopardizing the cattle farms and the deer herd,� Patrick said.
There�s a real fear that bovine TB has spread from the northeast part of the state to Antrim and Emmet counties. Yet the devil is in the details. One wild deer tested positive in 1999 in Antrim County. Neither cattle nor deer have tested positive in Charlevoix County where Niewendorp lives. Two cattle tested positive in neighboring Emmet County, but that was five years ago. Two cattle tested positive in farms somewhat near Niewendorp�s farm, but were imported from different parts of the state. The only animal to definitively contract TB in the area was a dairy cow, which tested positive in May of 2006, but it was 15 miles from Niewendorp�s ranch (the range of a wild deer is seven miles). Extensive testing of wild deer turned up nothing.
When pressed at last week�s event, Patrick said this: �If we don�t test, our farmers would lose their ability to market their cattle. It would impact the entire country.�
And her point is valid. The USDA can impose heavy consequences on Michigan farmers if the state does not meet its testing requirements. Since Michigan lost its TB-free status, farmers have sold meat as usual, but Wisconsin farmers stopped buying the state�s live cattle.
Since testing began a decade ago, the numbers of one or more cows testing positive in a herd have dropped from a high of eight herd in 2001 to four last year. Only one cow tested positive this year so far.
Wild deer tell a different story. It peaked at 78 in 1998, with numbers bouncing generally down. A total of 41 deer tested positive in 2006, about twice the number of 2005, and they continue to heavily cluster in the Alpena area, home to exclusive hunt clubs of the rich and powerful (see sidebar).
ONE COW, TRIPLE THE HASSLE
If a single cow is diagnosed with TB, the entire herd is �depopulated� as Patrick would say. The reasoning: the bacterium is very slow growing. Infected cows might test negatively, yet spread it to deer who are nuzzling them through the fence. Producers receive fair-market value, the testing is TB free, so Patrick is wondering why Niewendorp is complaining.
Patrick�s words sound soothing. But Niewendorp�s act of civil disobedience has prompted farmers to speak up.
There is Doug Kirkpatrick, a farmer outside of Alpena, who had his 50 cattle and 10 pigs �depopulated� after a single cow was diagnosed with TB. The herd was condemned a year ago, but the USDA took months to remove. Kirkpatrick told the Petoskey News Review that he spent $6,000 to feed animals considered already dead. The state also killed 231 cattle owned by Kendall Sumerix of Alpena because a cow he bought from Montana tested positive. The MDA went even further and destroyed another 26 cattle of his brother-in-law, Kim Sumerix, in June of 2006. Why?
�Because we bought 13 of the Montana cows from Kendall two and a half years before they ever found the reactor cow in Kendall�s herd,� said Neva Sumerix, who is married to Kim. �But our cattle never tested positive. We were blown away. They told us we had to destroy any relation to his cow because of the possibility of exposure. There was also an issue of what to do with the 13 calves, but my husband and I both work full-time and we didn�t have the time to bottle feed the calves, so we said, take them too. We tried to get along. If we didn�t, our herd would have been quarantined and we wouldn�t have been able to sell our cattle to make payments on the farm. It doesn�t make any sense.�
The MDA says it gives market value for the cows that are �depopulated,� but Sumerix said she had to pay more money for the 11 new cattle than the total she received for the 26 killed. The farmer can�t restock the farm until the last exposed cow leaves the premises, and then it�s another several months to disinfect the farm. That�s time the farmer loses to make money.
Kim Korthase, who lives 10 miles from Niewendorp, said after a steer tested positive, it took �months and months� for the USDA to remove the 259 cattle.
�They found one deer in Antrim County in 1999. Are we going to kill everything for one deer? They have to treat each area for the actual risk. I say, get rid of the deer in the (Alpena area) and let the deer herd come back healthy.�
A BETTER WAY?
Whole herd testing began in Charlevoix County after the MDA declared Antrim County as a �high risk� area in a July 2003 memo. Niewendorp went along and allowed his herd to be tested for TB, but he began researching the disease, believing there was a better way. He discovered that bovine TB bacteria thrives in high-acid, high-iron soil that�s common in Northern Michigan. The iron percolates into the water and into grass and herbs, which are eaten by deer and cattle. With high iron levels, the deer and cattle are more susceptible to the invasion of bovine TB. Bait piles also throw off the deers� natural diet and drive up iron levels. Medical studies show that TB bacteria thrives when a host has high iron supplies. Niewendorp gives his own herd calcium-enriched water, which helps keep iron levels normal for very little money.
He also came across a 1997 Michigan State University study of M. paratuberculosis, in which Michigan farmers were asked to apply lime to pastures as a protective measure. This particular bacteria causes Johne�s Disease. It is a mycobacterium, the same as bovine TB, but not a strain of bovine tuberculosis. In that study, researchers saw a ten-fold reduction in odds of herd infection in pastures applied with lime.
Dr. John Kaneene, a study author and an MSU professor of epidemiology, said he believes it would be a good idea to conduct a similar study with the bovine TB bacterium. One reason is that three Michigan farms found with infected cattle were re-infected, despite attempts to disinfect the grounds.
�The question is, why? Obviously there are many, many reasons. Maybe the farmers don�t do what we recommend�disinfecting and cleaning their farm before bringing in new animals. But the one key question is, are we destroying the organism from the environment from the farm.�
After hearing of Niewendorp�s approach of reducing iron levels of the cattle with calcium supplements, Kaneene agreed that it might serve as an experimental approach. The only caveat was getting permission to expose healthy animals with a dangerous bacteria.
Along the way, Niewendorp has collected an odd mix of bedfellows�organic food activists such as author Stephanie Mills; stay-off-my-land property rights activists in Antrim and Charlevoix counties; and Amish farmers who feel the same way as Niewendorp about getting their animals tagged. The Amish oppose the tags because of a prophesy in the Bible�s Book of Revelation, which says the �beast� forced everyone to �receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark.� In this case, the computer that scans the ear tags would be the beast.
Niewendorp also had long talks with Ted Beals, a pathologist who taught at the University of Michigan Medical School for 31 years. Beals� own research showed that it is extremely rare for a person to contract bovine TB in this country with current safeguards (although some elderly may harbor the bacteria from earlier days).
In fact, since the big TB scare ten years ago, the MDA has identified only two people with the specific strain of bovine TB. One was a hunter who was dressing a deer in Alpena County. He cut into a TB nodule and the bacteria seeped into a cut in his hand. The cut was badly infected and it took nine months to heal with the help of antibiotics, Patrick said.
The other was an elderly man, who died of other causes shortly after the bacteria was discovered in a medical workup. No one knows how and when he got TB.
The chances of contracting bovine TB by eating meat is so remarkably low, it�s almost impossible, Beals said.
�The animal would have to be very, very sick, and you�d have to eat an infected part of that animal. If the animal had active TB, it would be very obvious to the farmer it was very sick. It�s unlikely that the animal would get past an inspector, and if it did, you�d have to eat the part of the animal that�s actively infected (the lungs, stomach or lymph nodes), and that�s even less likely.�
How about drinking milk from a TB cow?
Possible, but again, highly unlikely. �I am unaware of any documented cases in which a human became infected with bovine tuberculosis by drinking milk that contained the bacteria. It may be technically possible for the bacteria to be present in milk (in those countries with lots of infected and sick cows) and technically possible for a human to drink that milk and have bovine tuberculosis in the intestine, but I do not believe that it has ever been documented. And that is not even conceivable in a country were bovine tuberculosis is seen only rarely in cows, and sick cows are not being milked,� Beals said.
The bovine TB eradication program in 1996 cost several hundred thousand dollars. Now it tops $10 million.
Niewendorp said that one reason he refused testing last year, and again this year, was that the program is an �extravagant waste of money.� A state law says testing must stop if there�s no positive finding within three years in a �high risk� area (Patrick said Charlevoix County is not �high risk�). He contends that the state has not refined or pared down the program and that�s because it would lose $5 million in federal matching grants.
Meanwhile, many hunters are still using bait piles because it hasn�t affected them. Only one deer has actually been found dead of TB, perhaps because critters eat the weak and infected deer, or the deer are shot before getting sick. Whatever the reason, herd numbers are steady.
Beals supports common sense herd management, but said that testing Niewendorp�s herd is unreasonable.
�He is a very good farmer and he knows his animals very well, unlike some situations. There are some big factory farms, where the actual owner may never see the animals. He�s not like that. He knows their health. If any are sick, he knows about it. They are his equity. He�s extraordinarily careful when milking his animals to avoid contamination.�
But wouldn�t examination on a farm-by-farm basis be too difficult?
�The inspectors do know Greg personally and they know all the farmers personally � I don�t buy that argument. You need to do something wrong before you�re arrested or issued a ticket. We expect from our civil servants a fairly high degree of judgment.
Author Stephanie Mills agreed that the state must act in a measured way or risk bankrupting small farmers.
�I must tell you that having consumed beef and milk and cream from Greg�s animals, I discovered what those things really taste like. I did so knowingly. We weigh the risks of the vanishingly small possibility of getting TB from these grass-fed critters against the risks of getting something worse from poorly inspected slaughterhouse beef that�s been re-reddened by exposure to carbon monoxide to keep it salable on the shelf, or encountering hormones in milk that�s come from scores of big dairies to be processed and mixed. I can imagine there being small farmers who are real slobs and who try to get away with shabby practices and sick herds, and I wouldn�t knowingly trade with them. But I know Greg and I know his standards.�
So how did the TB skin tests come out? Two of Niewendorp�s young calves tested positive, meaning they could have avian TB, which is harmless to cattle, or bovine TB. It also could be a false positive. A blood test will provide answers on Tuesday. Stay tuned.
Is The Feeding �Ban� a Farce?
By Anne Stanton
Back in 1994, there came a troubling sign that Michigan was no longer free of bovine tuberculosis. An infected deer was found on the grounds of the ritzy Turtle Lake Club, a 23,000-acre deer hunting club that�s home to 19 multi-millionaire members and cottage mansions.
The 1994 discovery led to the state�s effort to eradicate bovine TB both from cattle and deer. But one farmer in the �hot zone� surrounding Alpena County said the state won�t win the war until it stops going easy on the powerful hunt clubs.
If you�ve never heard of the Turtle Lake Club, an Outdoor Life article describes life on the other side:
�Hunters at Turtle Lake are taken to their blinds in horse-drawn wagons. The deer are driven to the hunters by locals who walk through the woods squeezing rubber bulbs on horns like those used in antique cars,� * wrote Eric Sharp in the September 2007 article.
State officials realized that deer eating and breathing together at bait piles triggered the bovine TB problem. That led to limiting bait to two gallons per hunt site; it must be spread out, not piled.
But farmer Kendall Sumerix, also a biochemist, said enforcement of that rule is a farce. The number of bovine TB deer found in 2006 was about double that of 2005. That�s because the state became lax, he said.
�Stores are selling sugar beets in bulk again; they haven�t done that in five or six years. They�re advertising again and they�re selling the stuff by pick-up loads,� said Sumerix.
Sumerix suggested increasing the current fine of bait pile violations from $100 (it was originally a wrist-slapping $25) to a $500 fine. Maybe half the fine could reward the one who reports it, he said.
Sumerix said the state won�t get tough on bait piles or force a thinning of the infected herd because it would mean mixing it up with the rich and powerful.
�If it involved unimportant people such as us, they�d take out all the deer,� Sumerix says. �But look who hunts there - Governor John Engler. They (the hunt clubs) give politicians free perks and free hunting trips. I�m a Republican, and I think it�s disgusting. It�s all politics, there�s nothing scientific about this program.�
One study shows an outright ban on bait piles would be effective. An extensive MSU study completed in 2001 showed that any amount of bait can be expected to �sustain and spread a disease like bovine TB, but smaller quantities tended to be even worse than the large ones.�
A Danish study gives another compelling reason to eliminate bait piles. Wild deer, in winter, eat moss containing usnic acid, a natural antibiotic for TB. Captive deer won�t eat it because they aren�t hungry enough, Sumerix said.
DNR wildlife biologists for years have told the Natural Resources Commission that bait piles help spread the disease, but the NRC has repeatedly blocked an outright ban, said outdoor writer Bob Butz.
Keith Charters, who heads the NRC, is a long-time friend of former Governor John Engler. A ban on baiting piles would drastically reduce deer numbers and make it much harder to snag a deer.
DNR biologists in the field have told Sumerix that it would be best to drastically thin the infected herds, and let the herd rebuild with a healthy stock. Those in the DNR�s higher echelons say they can�t do that on private land�not even when the deer are fenced in. But that�s exactly what they�re doing with cattle herds on private land when they find just one infected animal, Sumerix said, whose herd was �depopulated� last year.
Is it possible to skin test deer?
No, because the stress would kill them, said Bridget Patrick, bovine TB eradication project coordinator. DNR biologists observe captive deer herds periodically. The DNR is also field testing a blood test that provides an instant result, said DNR spokeswoman Mary Dettloff.
If the state doesn�t get serious about bait piles, bovine TB will continue to seep to other areas of the state, Sumerix fears. The deer are like firewood: hunters kill them, take them downstate, butcher them, and often throw the bone into the bushes. Small animals could eat the guts and spread TB to cattle and deer. The DNR doesn�t believe that small animals can transmit the infection, but many farmers differ.
Sumerix is more than a little concerned. �It�s spreading now! How long are they going to wait?�
Dettloff said that while the incidence of bovine TB spiked in 2006, the state is much better off than it was 12 years ago. �In 2006, the prevalance rate for Bovine TB (in the hot zone), was 2.3 percent. In 1995, it was at 4.9 percent. Eradication efforts are working.�
Tom Cuorchaine, who heads up enforcement, said the department has written 150 citations in the core area and conducted 100 flight patrols since 2004. It plans to step up enforcement this fall.
�I know we haven�t made progress in the last year or two, but it�s not because we haven�t been trying. It goes back to public support�the people who own the property, the people who hunt deer, and the courts.�
October 17, 2007
Finally a balanced article. It is long but well worth the read.