Feature

Worries within

Ask farmers what they’re worried about these days, and they’ll be quick to talk about bad weather, low market prices, labor shortages, cumbersome regulations and restrictive trade policies.

When it comes to their own mental health, however, many farmers suffer in silence. Stress is the trouble they don’t talk about.

“Farmers aren’t making any money right now, and it’s wearing on us,” said Jon Roberts, MFA Incorpo­rated livestock specialist. “Crop and livestock pro­ducers are hurting, and 2019 prices are projected to remain flat. Uncertainty about foreign trade, family illness or divorce can make stress levels even worse. Problems are stacking up.”

Self-reliant and independent, farmers typically keep their worries within. They often come from a tradition of not sharing their challenges, choosing instead to “tough it out” on their own. Farmers work long, hard days and may de-prioritize their own well-being to get the job done.

Roberts knows the struggle firsthand. Like many MFA employees, he farms part-time, raising 500 head of beef cattle and managing a couple thousand acres of pasture, hay and row crops near Leeton, Mo. Roberts admits experiencing an especially stressful year in 2018, when a late spring delayed planting and forage growth and a summer drought left much of Missouri short on hay, pasture and crop yields. A cold fall and bitter winter ensued.

“In my 57 years, this is the toughest winter I’ve ever seen,” Roberts said in March at the height of calving season during subzero temperatures. “It’s sad when you’ve taken care of a cow for a year, she calves at 2 a.m. in a blizzard, you’re not out there to get the calf out of a snow bank and it dies.”

He’s also seeing stress among the farmers he works with in west-central Missouri and senses that some customers and neighbors are depressed. Other producers are experiencing higher-than-normal livestock mortality rates as well. Beef producers have been forced to sell mama cows that lost calves, despite their importance to building herd genetics.

“If I had a broken leg, my neighbor would come over to help,” Roberts said. “If my tractor broke down, my neighbor would have a tractor here the next day. But if I have a depressed neighbor, I don’t know what to say; I don’t know how to help.”

Roberts learned more about how to help himself and others at the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association Convention in January. There he heard Jami Delli­field, a county-level family and consumer sciences educator and Mental Health First Aid instructor with Ohio State University Extension, who gave a presen­tation, “Don’t Let the Tough Times Defeat You.”

“Emotional wellness can be summed up as any­thing that affects our ability to live, to laugh and to love,” Dellifield explained. “Farm stress is rising. It’s not just an occupation—it’s an identity.”

Farmers generally find it difficult to share feelings, Dellifield said, but she has found ways to open up conversations when she speaks to farm groups. After hearing her speak, Roberts wrote an article about how to deal with stress for a regional MFA newsletter, assuring customers that “We at MFA and AGChoice care about you, your family and your farming operation.” He shared what he’d learned from Dellifield about how to identify signs of stress—many of which he was experiencing—and steps to take to improve the outlook.

“She nailed it,” Roberts said. “She had a profound effect on my farming operation, my career, my fami­ly and the people around me.”

Other Extension workers, farm groups and leaders, mental health professionals and economists also report increasing farm stress, mostly related to financial problems. USDA reports that total debt levels are forecast to reach $411 billion in 2018, the highest level since 1982 in inflation-adjusted dollars. Chapter 12 bankruptcy filings rose by 19 percent in the Midwest in 2018, the highest level in a decade, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.

“Farm-sector assets grew 4 percent, or $125 billion, from 2012 to 2018, and farm sector debt increased 25 percent over that same period,” reported Carrie Litkowski, leader of the farm income team at USDA’s Economic Research Service.

Gary Marshall, executive director of the Missouri Corn Growers Association, is hearing more about financial stress— especially earlier this year when farmers were preparing their tax filings.

“That’s when they find out about last year’s income,” he said. “Every year it’s getting a little bit worse. There’s a lot of angst out in the countryside.”

In February, Karen Funkenbusch, a specialist in human environmental science with University of Missouri Extension, spent three days working at a booth at the Western Farm Show in Kansas City.

“I was surprised at how many farmers were willing to talk openly about stress and depression,” she said.

Funkenbusch’s booth promoted an AgrAbility program to help disabled farmers. Farm family members of all types stopped by to discuss stress, including veterans, 4-H and FFA members, and spouses.

“Farm wives are caught in the middle,” Funkenbusch said. “They might keep problems from their spouse to avoid a blow-up; they don’t know how to talk to a volatile kid; they don’t want to cause disruption and don’t know how to deal with the problem.”

Rural people face special challenges, she added. And while crisis help is available at no cost, many health plans don’t cover ongoing mental health counseling.

“Help’s not as available in rural areas,” Funken­busch said. “Plus, people in small towns often don’t seek help; they’re worried people will talk. Even if they do look for professional help, it can be expensive. When you already feel trapped fi­nancially, what do you do first—eat, put in a crop, or pay for counseling?”

When help is available, it sometimes comes too late. The number of farmers who take their lives due to psychological issues is much higher than from farm accidents or illnesses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study in 2016 that reportedly showed the “farming, fishing and forestry” occupational group suffered a higher rate of suicide than any other occupa­tion. Those findings were retracted last year by the CDC, which said a misclassification of farmers created an overinflated number of suicides in the “Triple-F” category. It included farmworkers but should not have included farmers and ranchers, who were supposed to be classified as “managers” in the study.

Still, the retraction of the CDC study doesn’t minimize the risk and mental stress of agricultural professions and possibility of suicides by those who do own the farm. Farm advocates note that getting accurate figures is difficult because some deaths reported as farm accidents are actually suicides.

Debra Walker, director of public and legislative affairs for the Missouri Department of Mental Health, said her department doesn’t track stress or suicide by profession, but Missouri’s suicide rate is higher than the national average. In the Show-Me State, she said, one person dies by suicide every seven hours. Most farmers are male, and in 2017, 80 percent of those who died by suicide in Missouri were male.

“We have noticed that when times are tough in agriculture, suicide rates sometimes go up among demographic groups that farmers fit into, such as age, gender and race,” Walker said. “We noticed an uptick in suicides among this group during last summer’s drought.”

MFA’s Roberts admits that stress levels aren’t as bad today as what he and his family experienced during the farm crisis of the 1980s, mainly because there’s a better safety net in place with fed­erally supported crop insurance.

“My parents’ farm was sold at auction on the courthouse steps to cover their debts,” he said. “I was able to buy the farm back later, but I can’t forget my parents’ pain. Today, farmers are leveraged, no doubt about it, but we’re not seeing land values fall like they did in the ’80s.”

Still, he said, stress is a critical issue among today’s farmers, who often keep their heartaches hidden for a number of reasons. Agricultural producers are less likely to reach out for help with personal problems, and friends and neighbors don’t always spot signs of stress.

“There’s stigma attached,” Roberts said. “It’s not talked about in the coffee shop. If the problem’s above the collar, you may not know about it. We like to solve things for ourselves, but when it comes to stress or depression, that’s not always possible.”

A survivor's story
Farmer helps others turn hopeless to hopeful

In 1985, David Middleton lost his farm, his wife left him, and he fell into such a deep depression that he consid­ered suicide. The Missouri farmer thought he was alone in his struggles.

“People told me to snap out of it and think positive,” he said. “But my pain was so bad I was willing to die.”

Middleton credits family and faith with helping him overcome his personal crisis.

“God intervened and sent an angel to help me in the form of my second child, who said ‘Daddy, don’t leave,’” he said. “I realized I couldn’t do that to my family. The pain I would cause them outweighed my pain. Luckily, my parents got me into a clinic. I went through counseling, started taking an antidepres­sant and found prayer.”

Today, everything Middleton lost in the ’80s has been restored. He farms the same size and type of farm in a different part of the state, and he is remarried with six children. He also counsels other farmers on depression and suicide prevention, specializing in working with disabled farmers.

“But I’ll speak to any group on the subject of depression and suicide,” he said. “You can be blunt with farmers— and I don’t mince words. I tell my story and encourage people to get counseling.”

The 2018 drought affected him but he had enough hay stored to feed his cattle, and benefited from intensive grazing and relief pastures he had put in place. While the drought caused his neighbors to chop their corn for silage, Middleton was able to wait and his corn yielded 85 bushels an acre.

Admittedly, Middleton said he continues to feel stress when it rains too much or too little or when a farm payment comes due.

“But it’s not the end of the world,” he said. “I can deal with it now—I don’t keep the anger bottled up inside. I’ve learned how to decompress through breathing exercises, drawing closer to God and remembering that this, too, will pass.”

How to spot, relieve and find help for stress
Signs of stress

  • Eating or sleeping too much or too little
  • Pulling away from people and activities
  • Having low or no energy
  • Feeling numb or like nothing matters
  • Having unexplained aches and pains
  • Feeling helpless or hopeless
  • Smoking, drinking or using drugs more than usual
  • Feeling confused, forgetful, on edge, angry, upset, worried or scared
  • Yelling or fighting with family and friends
  • Experiencing severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships
  • Having persistent thoughts and memories you can’t get out of your head
  • Hearing voices or believing things that are not true
  • Inability to perform daily tasks like taking care of your kids or getting to work or school
  • Thinking of harming yourself or others

Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.mentalhealth.gov/basics/what-is-mental-health

How to prevent stress

  • Exercise 20 minutes or more daily, such as walking or anything that elevates your heart rate
  • Schedule a checkup with your healthcare provider
  • Spend 10 minutes a day to plan your day and your priorities
  • Take regular breaks, 5 to 10 minutes, to relax and recharge
  • Each day, write down three things you are grateful for
  • Select three healthy habits to practice daily
  • Share concerns with a counselor, pastor, family member or friend
  • Take time each day for uninterrupted conversation with a family mem­ber or friend
  • Get involved or stay connected with a group, organization or circle of friends
  • Discuss your operation with others, but don’t let farming overwhelm all aspects of your life
  • Seek constructive feedback on your farm operation and ways to improve
  • Create a family and farm budget and live within your means

Source: Jon Roberts

Where to get help

  • If you are having suicidal thoughts or know someone who is, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255, text HOME to 741741, or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.orgfor free crisis support 24/7
  • In Missouri, call (888) 761-4357, text HAND to 839863, or visit www.missouricrisisline.com
  • Get local help from the Missouri Department of Mental Health Behav­ioral Health Crisis Hotline by visiting dmh.mo.gov/mentalillness/ progs/acinumbers.html
  • Contact your local Extension office; Extension offers Mental Health First Aid training to Extension personnel, counselors and others. Look for classes near you at www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org
  • Call 911 for emergencies or 211 for listening support if you have suicidal thoughts or mental health issues

 

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House of hope

Its dimensions are tiny. But its impact is huge.

Constructed this spring by FFA members in Greenville, Mo., the one-room, 6-x-12-foot building now shelters a homeless Army veteran who previously lived in a tent in East St. Louis. For him, the structure means a solid roof over his head. It means insulated protection from the elements. It means a soft place to lay his head.

More importantly, it means someone cares.

“What they built could actually save someone’s life,” said Steven Pace, a U.S. Army Reserve chaplain who leads an initiative to provide shelter, food, clothing and other necessities to homeless communities in the St. Louis area. “These young people learned how to build a structure, sure, but what’s even bigger is that they learned to give of themselves and take care of those in need. Hopefully, later in life, those lessons will transform into continued service.”

This is the second year in a row that the Greenville High School FFA chapter built a house for Pace’s ministry, Sheds for the Homeless, a grass­roots effort he began as a way to help heal emotionally from a particularly traumatic military tour in Afghanistan. He met Greenville FFA Advisor Scott Payne, a fellow Army Reserve chaplain, during a 2017 conference at Fort Bragg, N.C., and the pair decided to work together on the project.

“I told Scott about what we were doing to help the homeless, and he asked if his kids could build something we could use,” Pace said. “I told him, ‘Yeah! It will be a whole lot better than anything we’re building.’ And it was. It was phenomenal.”

Payne said his agricultural students enthu­siastically embraced the idea and so did the Wayne County community.

“I came back and told my FFA kids about it, and they immediately wanted to know what we could do to help,” Payne said. “We began to tinker with ideas and building plans. We talked to local businesses and organiza­tions, and everyone came together fabulously last year. We got the materials donated and within just a matter of weeks we had the first little house built. I met up with Chaplain Pace and delivered it in February 2018.”

The recipients of last year’s house were a wheelchair-bound woman and her husband who were living in a homeless village of tents and plywood sheds that Pace and other volunteers had built in East St. Louis, just across the river in Illinois. That property was recently sold and the residents evicted. The FFA-built house was moved to another, undisclosed location and has new residents. The original couple who lived there is now in permanent housing, Pace proudly reports.

“The homeless are pretty transient,” he said. “We were able to finally get her on disability and from there get them into an apartment. All these shelters are temporary. Well, we’re hoping they are temporary. We don’t want them to live there forever. It’s just a matter of helping them survive the difficult times until they can get out and get on with their life.”

Wishing to remain anonymous, the recipient of this year’s FFA house has been living alone on a parcel of unused city property for more than two years. Pace said he hopes having a place to call his own may encourage the veteran to re-enter society.

“This gentleman, he wants to live there. Some of the home­less are like that,” Pace said. “I don’t know his circumstances or what happened to him after he got out of the military. We just want to take care of him. We’re taking him from sleeping on the ground to sleeping in a bed, which is a pretty big step. Maybe it will give him the courage to take the next step.”

In 2018, nearly 38,000 veterans were among America’s 553,000 homeless, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Those numbers are what drew Payne and his students to the project.

“As a chaplain, I deal with soldiers with all kinds of issues,” Payne said. “Sadly, there are those who just have a difficult time reintegrating into society, especially combat soldiers, and a lot of them end up homeless as a result.”

The FFA construction project not only benefits the homeless, but it also teaches members practical skills and life lessons, said Payne, who joined the school staff in 2002 as industrial arts teacher. In 2014, he started the school’s agricultural program and chartered its FFA chapter, which is now 43 members strong. Students in his AgriSciences 1 and 2, Ag Power, Ag Con­struction and Natural Resources classes along with junior high shop students all had a chance to help build the house.

“It’s been a good experience, helping someone else who doesn’t have what we have,” said Cassidy Billingsley, a sopho­more. “After all the hard work, I was happy to see someone else receive it. I really enjoyed working together and creating some­thing as a group, and it was all a learning experience for me.”

As soon as the first house was finished in the spring of 2018, the FFA members began making plans for the next one. Using the same design, they began work on the structure this past February and completed it in early April.

“After we delivered last year’s house, I listened to the kids talk about how it felt so good to do something meaningful,” Payne said. “I’m glad they’re realizing that doing something to help somebody else has intrinsic value. It doesn’t have to be about the grade or the recognition.”

Small enough to fit on the school’s flatbed trailer, the house resembles an outdoor storage shed. Outside, it’s covered in metal roofing and siding and has two small windows and a door. Inside are insulated pine­wood-paneled walls, linoleum flooring and a set of bunk beds outfitted with new sheets, pillows and hand-made quilts. There’s enough space for a folding chair and a small table. Pace’s volunteer group supplied a generator and a small air conditioner from the dismantled village.

“There’s room for two people in it, and with it wrapped and insulated nice and tight, it won’t take much to heat it or cool it,” Payne said. “It’s nothing fancy, but it’s enough to help them survive.”

Not counting the lumber, which was donated by Trin­ity Lumber in nearby Clubb, Mo., the house takes about $1,500 in supplies to complete, Payne said. Last year, most materials were donated. This year, local business­es, groups and individuals funded the project through financial donations, including $500 each from Farm Credit Services and Piedmont Rotary Club.

“We had people who didn’t have the chance to donate last year ask if they could they donate this year, so we were able to purchase most of what we needed,” Payne said. “We didn’t do any fundraising or anything; that was all just word of mouth. We told the community what we were trying to do, and they wanted to help.”

Most of the participating students admitted they had no prior construction experience, but that didn’t stop them from jumping into the project headfirst, their teacher said. The teenagers handled each step of the building process, from putting up the walls and insulation to installing windows, roofing, siding and flooring. Unanimously, the students said the insulation was the biggest challenge. No one liked touching the itchy fiberglass batting.

“I came into this project not really knowing what to expect, but it’s been fun,” said Savannah Colbert, a junior. “I’ve learned a lot, and there was a sense of accomplishment when we were done. I think it’s important for FFA chapters to help people.”

For a special finishing touch, students created patriotic- themed paintings to decorate the interior, and everyone who worked on the project had an opportunity to sign the walls with encouraging messages for the house’s future residents.

“It makes me choke up thinking about their care for people,” Payne said. “I had people who aren’t even in the ag program come down on their lunch break to work on it. They wanted to put their hands on it and be a part of it. It’s been a really good thing for our students to understand that they can make a posi­tive difference in the world. That’s what FFA is all about.”

Pace said he hopes the efforts of Greenville FFA will inspire other FFA chapters and agriculture education programs to look for ways they can help homeless organizations in their commu­nities with similar projects. The need is there, he said, and it’s often overlooked.

“The homeless are right under our nose, and we don’t even know it,” Payne said. “Where we delivered the house last year, I could see the St. Louis football stadium right across the river. Here are people living with a complete abundance of every­thing, and then just two or three miles away are people who have nothing but a tarp to sit under when it’s raining. Once in a while that’s by choice, but the vast majority of the time, it’s not.”

One tiny house at a time, Greenville FFA members are doing what they can to help. Payne and his students plan to build a new shelter every year, as long as they can find a place to de­liver them. It may not make much of a difference in the overall homeless population, but it will mean everything to the people who get to live there.

“This project has helped me appreciate the things that we have, and it’s important to me as a Christian to be able to help somebody in need,” Payne said. “On the educational side, it does me good to watch the students take ownership. They buy into it, and I can see it in their eyes. They’re not just hammering those nails because Mr. Payne said they had to; they’re doing it because they want to help somebody. It’s a whole new world for them—and me.”

For more information on how you can help Greenville FFA with future building projects, contact Scott Payne at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Floods still threaten Midwest

FloodsMissouri River in St. Joseph, Mo., as it was cresting March 21 at just over 30 feet, the second-highest level on record.For many farms along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, flood­waters were still rising and hopes for spring planting were falling as this issue of Today’s Farmer went to press in mid-April.

At the time, damage estimates were still being calculated for Missouri, but in late March floodwaters covered roughly 200,000 acres in five northwest counties adjoining the Missouri River, according to USDA’s Natural Resourc­es Conservation Service. Kansas officials said flood damage was limited to about 31,000 acres of mostly farmland and some stored grain.

Neighboring Iowa and Nebraska were harder hit. Iowa Farm Bureau estimated the state may see more than $2 billion in damages from flooding, and Nebraska officials reported nearly $1.4 billion in flood damage. Totals are expected to grow as more assessments are made.

This early flooding was caused by rapid snow melt combined with heavy spring rain and late-season snowfall in areas where soil moisture was already high from record winter precipitation, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). As a result, many farmers are faced with waterlogged fields, damaged grain, massive cleanup and impassable roads and bridges to fields and livestock. Sand and debris left behind must be cleaned up before planting.

“Flooding has impacted thousands of acres in our trade territory along the Missouri River in the AGChoice and Midwest groups,” said MFA Region 1 Manager Adam McIntyre, who covers northwest Missouri and adjacent coun­ties. “As the water starts to recede, producers will be faced with the decisions for the 2019 crop year. Many producers are planning on taking ‘prevent plant’ on corn instead of planting soybeans with the threat of additional flooding and no levee protection. Only time will tell.”

Indeed, the March floods could be just the beginning of a rough start to the growing season. Hefty snowpack in the northern Plains is adding to already swollen rivers and streams, and NOAA is predicting above-average rainfall this spring. The administration’s Spring Flood Outlook Map shows greater than 50 percent chance of major, moderate or minor flooding in MFA territory through May.

“The extensive flooding we’ve seen will become more dire as the water flows downstream,” said Ed Clark, director of NOAA’s National Water Center. “This is shaping up to be a potentially unprecedented flood season, with more than 200 million peo­ple at risk for flooding in their communities.”

FloodMissouri River in St. Joseph, Mo., as it was cresting March 21 at just over 30 feet, the second-highest level on record.According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees river infrastructure, at least 62 Midwest levees were breached or overtopped in March, and hundreds of miles of levees sustained damage. The upper Missouri River Basin saw 11 million acre-feet of water in March alone, 51 percent above the previous record of 7.3 million acre-feet set in 1952.

Flooding also caused problems for transportation. Barge movement was stopped or restricted on affected waterways, rail companies had to divert trains where tracks were under water, and trucks had to find alternate routes in areas where roads were closed or damaged.

Mitch Dawson, manager of MFA Incorporated’s Grain Divi­sion, said flooding didn’t negatively imact MFA’s grain move­ment. No grain barges were scheduled during that time, and the grain MFA sold mainly went by truck and rail to feed and ethanol markets in unaffected areas.

Dawson said it’s too soon to tell how the wet spring could otherwise affect grain volume in the fall.

“We know we will have some acres that won’t get planted, but at this point, the second week of April, we don’t have enough information to know what kind of overall impact we will see,” he said. “The later we go in the calendar, every­thing gets more compressed. But Mis­souri farmers can react quickly and get a lot done in a short amount of time.”

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson declared a state of emergency on March 21 in response to worsening conditions along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Two weeks later, he joined Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and Nebraska Gov. Pete Rick­etts in asking the Corps of Engineers for short-term help in fixing breached levees and for long-term solutions to control the Missouri River in the future. At a news conference, the three gov­ernors pledged to work together as a region to ensure their states have a more active role in managing the river.

Flood Outlook MapThe National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Spring Flood Outlook Map shows greater than 50 percent chance of major, moderate or minor flooding in much of the Midwest through May.“It’s long past time for change,” Parson said. “We must begin a serious dis­cussion about how we improve flood control. One-third of Missouri’s most productive farmland’s fate rests in the hands of those who manage our rivers—the Corps. The devastating flooding we are experiencing and the previous record 2011 flooding have demonstrated the current system is insufficient to protect us.”

In early April, the governor requested assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in making damage assessments for seven Missouri counties: Andrew, Atchison, Buchanan, Holt, Mississippi, New Madrid and Ray. Additional assessments are likely to be conducted in other areas.

“It’s already clear that the damage from the historic flooding has been devastating for some Missouri communities,” Parson said. “These assessments are an important next step as we con­tinue to focus efforts on rebuilding.”

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Tackling traceablitly

Cattle Trace expands it's pilot program to Missouri.

Animal traceability is a difficult subject to discuss, let alone tackle, in the cattle industry for many reasons—both real and imagined. Objections to any comprehensive beef animal tracking range from liability to privacy concerns to potential negative effects on free markets.

Kansas Animal Health Commissioner Dr. Justin Smith spoke to the Missouri crowd about the current challenges he faces while tracking down reportable animal diseases like tuberculosis in his home state. “Today, the challenge is knowing where to look,” said Smith, the state’s top vet.Kansas Animal Health Commissioner Dr. Justin Smith spoke to the Missouri crowd about the current challenges he faces while tracking down reportable animal diseases like tuberculosis in his home state. “Today, the challenge is knowing where to look,” said Smith, the state’s top vet. Those involved in building health traceability systems rec­ognize those challenges. That’s why a new pilot program called “CattleTrace” is intentionally being built from scratch with a very limited scope—developing an infrastructure for reportable animal disease traceability. MFA Health Track recently joined this public-private partnership to create a more effective beef cattle disease response tracking system.

“CattleTrace is designed strictly for the event of animal disease outbreaks,” said Cassie Kniebel, CattleTrace program manager. “Really, it is going to be for the use of animal health officials like state veterinarians.”

Currently, she explained, state veterinarians do most of the investigations of USDA-reportable diseases such as brucellosis and tuberculosis, and their investigations are often slowed by paperwork and dead ends.

So, how does an industry trace its own calf locations? It turns out only four data points have to be collected to effectively track down sick animals. The CattleTrace project is testing the viabili­ty of collecting only the animal ID number, time, date and location. The process occurs when a beef animal wearing an ultra high frequency (UHF) tag passes a tag reader and is recorded as being present at a certain spot at that date and time. This is called a sighting, a term used in other databases to track beef and dairy cows that cross state lines. Sightings make it possible to re-create a path that a sick animal took and reduce the spread of the disease.

“Today, the challenge is knowing where to look,” said Kansas Animal Health Commissioner Dr. Justin Smith, the state’s top vet whose job is to track down the origin of sick animals in Kansas. He had just spent the previous week with his team testing cows for tuberculosis in western Kansas. “With CattleTrace, we’ll know right away where to look and who to ask. Since, most of the time, producers and markets are doing things the way they are supposed to, investigations go pretty quickly, but that is once you know who to ask and where to look.”

In an example given for tuberculosis, animals need to be tested for five years after being exposed. If producers don’t have good records on who they sold a cow to five years ago, that animal is difficult to track.

“The faster we can track down sick animals, and the better the records, the fewer animals need to be quarantined and tested,” Smith said.

The traces currently completed for sick cows are made possible from the calfhood vaccinations required for heifers and health papers required to travel across state lines. This data populates existing databases to track beef and dairy cows. However, these databases do not track steers and heifers under the age of 18 months.

Tracking beef calves can be difficult because they are usually harvested by 30 months of age and are moved around a lot. No single database currently exists to track young animals. CattleTrace could help solve this problem.

Corralling the contagionsCattleTraceMeeting1KingsvilleMO 10Speaking at the Kingsville Livestock Auction about MFA’s involvement with CattleTrace, Health Track Director Mike John said, “We are proud to lend our expertise to this industry-led effort.”

In the case of foot-and-mouth disease (aka hoof-and-mouth), considered the most contagious pathogen second only to small pox, the speed at finding animals will be critical, Smith said.

“It takes a very low viral load to infect with foot-and-mouth,” he said. “It also affects all of the cloven-hooved species.”

Foot-and-mouth has only a seven-day to 14-day incubation period, during which animals can be spreading the disease, possibly not yet showing symptoms. In extreme situa­tions, the disease has been suspected to be spread by wildlife or even windblown.

“Every state is different, but in the case of a livestock foot-and-mouth outbreak in Kansas, I’d order an all-stop on movement of livestock in the state,” said Smith. “No livestock would be allowed to be transported anywhere until the problem is contained. You have to assume every animal is affected until ruled out. Although the disease doesn’t affect humans, it is nasty because animals are never really the same afterwards.”

Having a system like CattleTrace up and going could also help animal health authorities effectively clear herds and entire areas that were not exposed to the sickness, added Mike John, director of MFA Incorpo­rated’s Health Track program.

“As a producer, that is why I am participating,” he said. “They might be the impartial third-party that says, ‘This herd is good.’ That could help reduce the economic impact of even the most severe outbreak.”

Not just in Kansas anymore

TAGSRFIDUHFTagsUltra High Frequency Tags used by Cattle Trace This pilot program is steadily growing into multiple states with the goal of becoming a national asset. In Kansas, Cattle­Trace has UHF readers installed at eight livestock markets, 14 feed yards, four packing plants and enough ranches to start testing the database. The Missouri and Kansas Departments of Agriculture have signed a statement of cooperation to work with each other in the project.

The CattleTrace system is set up as a not-for-profit with a five-member board consisting of cattle industry representatives. CattleTrace also has an advisory committee made up of members of the Kansas Livestock Association, Kansas State University and Kansas Department of Agricul­ture. The project is partially funded by a USDA grant distributed through K-State.

In Missouri, CattleTrace was presented to producers who met over ribeye meals in March at the Kingsville Livestock Auction, the first location in the state to participate by installing UHF tag readers. Many of the producers were interested in the new tag technology that is making the pilot possible, although some were skeptical and asked pointed questions about the process.

What they learned was that the program inves­tigators will not have direct access to the per­sonal data from producers. Instead, they request information through queries from an animal ID tag. The next phase is continuing growth of the database and participants by adding states and producers and then conducting database testing.

“The exact protocol for requesting data is still in the works because that is it part of what the pilot is determining,” Kniebel said. “Right now, we are in data-collection mode and writing the database queries. We will start to mock traces this summer.”

As director of the MFA’s Health Track preconditioning verification program, John said he is interested in helping the Cattle­Trace pilot program for several reasons.

“This new UHF tag technology can do what low-range RFID tags cannot,” he said. “You have to be within inches to read cur­rent tags, making it difficult to use for man­agement. It requires you move cattle single file. The options are limitless with the new tags, which could even allow in-the-pasture data and animal behavior reading.”

Second, John said, MFA Health Track wants to have a voice in the way the data is used and protected.

“We are proud to lend our expertise to this industry-led effort,” John said. “That is why Health Track customers who want to participate can opt-in. They just have to use the different UHF tags also issued by MFA Health Track.”

Above all, he said, the livestock indus­try needs a fast and accurate response to a health crisis, especially one that challenges producers’ livelihood.

“I’d prefer it be solved by the industry, instead of legislators,” John said. “Our customers are starting to insist. I believe it makes sense to do it while beef consumers seem to be willing to pay a premium to know more about their food and its origin.”

For more information, visit CattleTrace.org, beefusa.org/traceabilitystudy1.aspx and mfahealthtrack.com.
To hear a recording of the Kingsville Livestock Auction presentation, visit https://mfa.ag/CattleTraceKingsville.

To view the story as printed CLICK HERE for the flip book version of the May Today's Farmer Magazine.

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