Among the challenges South Texas farmers and ranchers confront on a fairly regular basis some might be classified as "never-ending nemeses." Re-occurring droughts, mesquite and huisache brush encroachment, and certain pest problems top the list of nemeses that won't go away.
The cattle fever tick is one of those pests that Texas ranchers, particularly those operating along the Mexican border, have been dealing with for more than a century.
Although "Cattle Fever," the actual disease that can be transmitted by these ticks was officially eradicated from the U.S. back in 1943, it has never been eradicated from Mexico.
The long-standing control measure that has served as the first line of defense against the spread of this disease has been a permanent quarantine zone that parallels the Rio Grande River. Its goal is to stop the spread of the tick species capable of carrying this disease.
That zone has been monitored by a small force of USDA employees who work in the Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service division. These individuals are commonly referred to as "Tick Inspectors."
They have a lot of remote, brushy rangeland to cover. They must supervise the dipping and inspection of all cattle in the zone to make sure they have no fever ticks. Boophilus annulatus or boophilus microplus are the only two tick species known to transmit the cattle fever organism.
All quarantine regulations must be in compliancy before cattle raised in the zone can be shipped to market or moved to other pastures outside the permanent quarantine zone. When conditions that favor the development of tick populations and wildlife species that can also carry these ticks are increasing in numbers, the task of tick inspection and control can easily overwhelm the current resources.
In late April, I attended a briefing on the current fever tick situation conducted in Alice. It was presented by Bob Hillman, state veterinarian and executive director of the Texas Animal Health Commission.
Over 50 cattle producers, County Extension agents, law enforcement officers and County Commissioners from Jim Wells and surrounding counties attended the informative meeting.
"It was a great crowd for such short notice." according to Rojelo Mercado, Jim Wells County Extension Agent.
And justifiably so. The mere mention of "fever ticks" brings back unpleasant memories for long-time brush country cattle ranchers. It was Aug. 22, 1972, a typical hot summer day at the South Texas Auction Co. in Alice when the last major fever tick outbreak was discovered during a routine inspection of sale barn cattle. That discovery resulted in a six-year effort of quarantine measures and twice monthly cattle drippings in vats charged with insecticide solutions to beat back that tick infestation.
That battle created a great deal of economic hardship on small and large beef producers alike. I served as County Extension Agent for Kleberg and Kenedy counties during most of that outbreak.
Unfortunately, liquidation was the most economical alternative for most of the "Mom and Pop" cattle operators that had limited labor and cattle hauling capabilities.
More than two-dozen small cattle producers chose to sell off their cattle and vacate their pastures rather than load and haul their herd to the county dipping vat every two weeks. But recent information indicates that vacating cattle from pastures may not be as effective in eliminating these ticks as it once was due to increased deer populations.
Dr. Hillman's briefing on the current situation indicated that since 2005 over 100 premises in the counties along the Rio Grande have been infested with the fever ticks. Although the majority of the premises are inside the permanent quarantine zone, the trend is disturbing. During the past three years, between 20 to 25 percent of premises with new tick infestations are in pastures just outside the zone.
And even more disturbing is that last year some 15 pastures that had livestock vacated for months were discovered with fever tick infestations on deer trapped or harvested from those pastures.
Only days before this meeting the Texas Animal Health Commission had to enlarge a temporary preventive fever tick quarantine zone in Star County by some 24,000 acres after ticks were discovered outside that county's existing quarantine zone.
The "take-home message" from this briefing was that more manpower resources and additional control measures must be approved to more effectively suppressing the spread of this potentially devastating problem before counties beyond those bordering the Rio Grande River become infested.
Harvey Buehring is the former Agricultural Extension Agent for Nueces County. Readers may contact him at (361) 767-5223.