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Lawmakers seek bovine TB help

ST. PAUL - State lawmakers want to spend more than $6 million to thwart the spread of bovine tuberculosis in northwestern Minnesota before it further threatens Minnesota's cattle industry.

Legislators familiar with the issue say they are working closely with the Pawlenty administration and believe there will be agreement to fund bovine TB measures despite larger looming budget fights at the Capitol.

"I feel confident that the governor and Legislature actually are on the same page in solving this problem," said DFL Rep. Dave Olin of Thief River Falls, who is sponsoring TB legislation in the House.

The problem is of direct concern to northwestern Minnesota, where bovine TB bacteria has been found in 11 cattle herds, but its presence is a statewide concern.

Even farmers located hundreds of miles from where infected animals have been found are affected as they face new and indefinite cattle testing requirements. Bovine TB also can lower cattle sales prices throughout the state.

Pawlenty and lawmakers have proposed directing about $2.7 million to the state Board of Animal Health to monitor and test cattle for bovine TB and to research ways to control and eliminate the presence of the bacteria, which causes respiratory disease in cattle.

It is most commonly transmitted between deer and cattle.

"It's urgent because the longer we wait, the more risk there is for the disease to continue spreading, either in the deer population or in the cow population," said Joe Martin, an assistant Agriculture Department commissioner and Pawlenty's bovine TB coordinator.

Martin said the Pawlenty administration and lawmakers are close to agreement on the spending plan.

In addition to the Board of Animal Health funding, legislators propose spending $3.3 million so the state can buy up to 56 cattle herds from within an area near Roseau where TB has been found.

Cattle ranchers would be paid $500 per animal; those animals would then be killed as part of an effort to eliminate other possible TB cases.

Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, said he expects at least half of those farmers to accept the buyouts, particularly because for some it could be financially beneficial.

If some of the 56 farmers do not take the proposed buyout, officials said those herds would undergo a risk assessment and the farmers would be required to test each animal for bovine TB at least annually and they would be required to install fencing to prevent contact between cattle and deer. The state would pay for most of the fencing costs.

If the funding is approved, accepting the herd buyout will be a difficult decision for some farmers, Skoe said.

"It's their livelihood," he said.

The legislation being considered would require farmers to decide whether to accept the buyout by July.

"The sooner we can get this done, the sooner farmers can start to make their plans and we can move forward on eliminating bovine TB," Skoe said.

The proposed state funding will not help all Minnesota cattle farmers.

A recent federal Agriculture Department decision will require ranchers in the state to test any animal they intend to ship out of state. Those tests can cost up to $10 per animal, plus veterinarian charges, Martin said.

The bill nearing votes in the House and Senate does not provide assistance to farmers outside a prescribed area in northwestern Minnesota.