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Calling all memories

Agriculture.com Staff 06/15/2006 @ 1:30pm

The other day there was a lovely 85-year-old lady's voice on my phone: "I am trying to find out about your new book ... "

My book, as I may have told you (about 95 times so far) is a novel about a US outbreak of FMD -- foot-and-mouth disease -- which, due to a bizarre coincidence of biology, politics, and international economics, has been called "the most important agricultural disease in the world." It affects cattle, hogs, sheep and more. The virus isn't lethal, but the current method of outbreak control -- preventative culling -- is.

As I listened to the delicate voice on my answering machine, it dawned on me: This Iowa woman was eight years old when we had the last US outbreak of this awful disease, in 1929. Would she remember it?

Do you?

Let me tell you what I have heard about the history of FMD in the US*. This won't take long.

In brief, there were nine separate FMD outbreaks in the US between 1870 and 1929 (see sidebar). There have only been two outbreaks in North America since 1929: Mexico, in 1946, and Canada in 1952 (source: a German farm worker.)

The Mexican outbreak was the trigger that got the big, high-security FMD research lab -- Plum Island Animal Disease Center -- established on an isolated island off the coast of New York City, quite a ways from farm country.

Plum Island had its own crisis in 1978, when some virus leaked out of the lab air vents and infected research cattle penned outside. But that's why the lab is on an island; it didn't cause an outbreak because the virus didn't make it to the mainland. (Well, if it did, it didn't get past Benny's Bagels on Lexington Ave.) But just imagine if the lab had been in Iowa ... yikes ... but who would be that crazy?

Summary: No US outbreaks since 1929.

No FMD outbreak in 77 years? Hey, we're good, right?

Yeah, we're good. And darn lucky. North America is swimming in a global sea of FMD. Every other continent -- except Australia -- has FMD virus on it.

Are you willing to bet your farm on 'darn lucky'?

Let's start by looking at one thing that hasn't changed much since 1929: the size of the national US livestock herd. We may have fewer farms, bigger farms, better genetics, better marketing…but the total number of cattle and hogs hasn't changed that much in 77 years.

Now about those changes ...

Here are a few things that are rather different than 1929, and could have some impact on your 'darn lucky'-ness.

Bigger average herd size: Since culling is done by the herd, the impact per herd is higher.

More Interstate highways: Those big rigs hauling livestock back and forth across the country had no Interstates before 1954. Now there are 46,000 miles of them, meaning an outbreak could travel farther, faster.

More exports: Total US agricultural exports have gone up a hundred-fold since 1929. This means there's more to lose if there's an export ban.

More farmers traveling overseas: Raise your hand if you know a farmer who went to Brazil (which is having an FMD outbreak right now) last year. Question: Did he have mud on his boots when he came back?

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