Idaho officials consider expansion of trich testing requirements

Jun 7, 2013

Officials with the Idaho State Department of Agriculture (ISDA), the Idaho Cattle Association (ICA), and a coalition made up of Idaho ranchers and veterinarians are recommending changes to the rules governing trich testing of bulls in that state. If enacted, the suggested alterations to state law would expand existing requirements currently in place in the southern portion of Idaho statewide, rescinding a longstanding exemption for producers in the northern end of the state.

Trichomoniasis, or “trich,” is a venereal disease of cattle caused by a parasitic protozoan. A bull that carries the disease typically exhibits no adverse symptoms. In cows, however, trich leads to early embryonic death, uterine infections, and temporary infertility. Trich can have profound economic effects to a cow herd: lengthening the calving season, causing abortions, and reducing conception by as much as 50 percent in a single year. Nationwide, it is estimated that the economic costs of trich exceed $100 million annually. While a vaccine is available to aid in clearing the disease from infected cows, a vaccine does not exist to prevent the disease in either cows or bulls.

Due to the potential economic effects of the disease, most western states in recent years have developed trich regulations in an effort to prevent infections from spreading. While individual rules vary from state to state, all rely heavily on testing bulls as the primary reservoir for the disease. In 1989, at the request of producers, Idaho became the first state to implement such rules, requiring testing of all non-virgin bulls, and all bulls over 24 months of age on or before April 15 each year. This is true regardless of whether or not a bull leaves the owner’s property at any time during the year. While the rule was originally enforced statewide, producers north of the Salmon River were granted an exemption in 1993, based upon a lack of positive cases. According to ISDA State Veterinarian Bill Barton, this was largely the result of differences in herd management between two states. “Originally, when the rule came into place, this was predominantly a problem in grazing associations, particularly along the Nevada border,” says Barton. “There’s not a lot of grazing associations or running in common up north, and a low instance of positive cases up there.”

Management of trich testing rules in Idaho is governed by a task force, working under ISDA, made up of ranchers and veterinarians from throughout the state. The task force meets annually to discuss enforcement issues, and the need for possible changes to the regulations, which are a matter of state law. “I think it’s important to realize that this is not just a bureaucratic thing,” says Barton. “This is an industry-driven rule.” In recent years, however, the task force has begun to consider removing the north Idaho exemption. The primary concern centers around untested bulls that many producers say are being brought into central Idaho from the north each grazing season, potentially putting southern herds at risk. While trich testing is a requirement before a bull can cross the Salmon River into southern Idaho, ranchers along the border argue that this does not always occur, and Barton points out that ISDA lacks the funding to adequately enforce the rule. “We don’t have the resources to test every load of cattle that come down the highway, and I don’t really have a good way of enforcing the testing requirement for bulls that come down,” explains Barton.

Last year, the task force approved altering the rules to include northern Idaho. Because any rule changes must be approved by the state legislature, however, Barton elected to first conduct some outreach in order to gauge the reaction from north Idaho producers.

“We didn’t have a lot of success, so I didn’t propose the rule change last year, because I knew it would get shot down if we didn’t have industry support,” says Barton. Chief among the complaints was the cost of having a veterinarian conduct the tests. At upwards of $25 per bull, argue many north Idaho ranchers, the tests constitute an unnecessary expense, given the lack of positive cases stemming from their region.

Despite opposition, ICA has endorsed the rule change, and discussions concerning the issue are scheduled during their upcoming convention on June 27, though no official proposal to change the rule has yet been put forth by IS- DA. “We’ll see,” says Barton. “Nothing will change this year, but we do want to do what is right for Idaho producers, and for the industry as a whole.”

While Barton understands that testing is costly, he points out that the lack of testing does not translate directly to a lack of trich-positive animals. “If you don’t look, you don’t find a problem,” he says. He also points out that new developments in technology may allow for cheaper testing. In particular, the use of pooled sampling, or testing of multiple bulls at the same time, has been used to significantly reduce testing costs in neighboring states. While not yet endorsed by the ISDA trich task force, Barton is hopeful that the use of pooled testing might make the testing requirement less onerous to northern Idaho producers. “If you can pool samples, that dramatically reduces the cost to producers,” he says. “If we can get to that point, we can make it much more reasonable.”

Regardless of a producer’s location, adds Barton, with the potential for heavy losses resulting from an outbreak, trich testing is one of the simplest ways to safeguard an operation’s bottom line. “Somewhere there’s some middle ground. I think that trich testing is a good management practice regardless of where you are,” he says. “Of all the disease issues that we deal with in cattle, trich should be one that we can manage against successfully.” — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent