Ag Commissioner Sid Miller tangles with Texas cattle raisers
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller — who most recently tangled with the state’s barbecue joints — has a new beef: the way ranchers fight the potentially deadly fever tick.
Miller incited a controversy Monday during a visit to a ranch near Raymondville, where he shut down 16 fever tick spray box operations, saying producers were complaining of cattle deaths from overuse of Co-Ral, a Texas Department of Agriculture-regulated pesticide manufactured by Bayer-Monsanto.
“Ranchers had complained to me about their cattle dying from these spray boxes, so I went to South Texas to check it out,” Miller said in a news release. “From my personal observation, the insecticide was being used in violation of the label, so I shut them down. I also gave state and federal authorities lawful alternatives for applying this insecticide, but they refused to implement these alternatives.”
ANOTHER BEEF: Texas ag commissioner rips WeWork over ‘anti-beef policy’
But Robert McKnight, a Fort Davis rancher who’s president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, said there have been no reports of cattle deaths and Miller doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
“The spray boxes utilized by the Texas Animal Health Commission and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service are not known to have caused any cattle deaths due to toxicity,” McKnight said. “Commissioner Miller’s efforts are actually detrimental to cattle raisers who rely on the use of spray boxes to eradicate cattle fever ticks from their operations.”
The fever tick carries a disease known as bovine babesiosis, which destroys red blood cells resulting in cattle anemia, fever and death.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, it spread north with longhorn cattle drives and nearly wiped out the U.S. cattle herd.
The pest was declared eradicated from the U.S. in 1943, save for a narrow quarantine zone hugging the Texas-Mexico border as the ticks have been known to cross the Rio Grande from Mexico.
In recent years, though, the tick increasingly has been making its way into the Texas interior, forcing the cattle industry to double down on efforts to contain it. According to the cattle raisers association, there now are nearly 1.4 million acres under some level of quarantine, compared to what had been 226,803 acres in the permanent quarantine area.
BBQ BEEF: Texas Ag commissioner, BBQ pitmasters battle over a weighty issue
The now-controversial spray boxes are portable chambers that can be toted to ranchers who otherwise might have to round up and transport the animals to distant dipping vats.
Miller, a former champion rodeo cowboy who took office in 2015, has drawn headlines for controversies such as a taxpayer-funded trip to Oklahoma for a pain-killing “Jesus shot” (he since has repaid the state), a thwarted attempt to use the blood thinner Warfarin as a poison against feral hogs in what he touted as a “feral hog apocalypse” and the recent “BBQ Bill,” which had restaurants across the state smoking mad over what they said were burdensome new requirements for weighing meats.
The spray box method that has incensed Miller has been in use since the 1970s, when the Environmental Protection Agency registered Co-Ral for use in spray boxes and dipping vats, Texas Animal Health Commission spokeswoman Callie Ward said by email. She said that because they are mobile, the animal health commission since September 2016 has been able to take them to 919 herds in 82 counties.
“Over the decades, TAHC has sprayed and assisted federal personnel in spraying thousands of cattle to prevent the spread of cattle fever ticks and the deadly disease they can carry, and has no indication the operation of spray boxes has directly led to cattle deaths,” she said.
Since Texas is the nation’s leading state in cattle production, the ramifications of a babesiosis outbreak could be huge. U.S. Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Lubbock, has said even a small outbreak outside the quarantine zone could cost about $120 million in the first year alone.
According to the USDA, an extended tick outbreak could cost U.S. ranchers and the broader economy more than $1.2 billion in extermination expenses and lost revenue from diseased animals. The U.S. cattle industry currently is valued at about $81 billion.
HEALTH PANEL: Miller catches heat for appointing ‘maverick’ with revoked medical licenses
The problem is so serious that U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat who sits on the House Committee on Appropriations Committee, last July secured $96.5 million in the 2018 agriculture appropriations bill to help stop the spread. Cuellar in May announced an additional $1 million in federal funding for 2019.
“Our cattle producers contribute greatly to the economy and way of life in South Texas,” Cuellar said. “They deserve our assistance in the face of threats to their vitality.”
Miller in a phone interview Tuesday stood by his actions, even when told ranchers represented by the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association said there were no reports of cattle deaths and the shutdowns were detrimental.
“We’ve got affidavits from ranchers,” he said. “Their immediate past president said it was like putting them in a gas chamber, so you’re hearing from a minority.”
Former TSCRA President Richard Thorpe, though, in a text message said he’d never seen the boxes but had been told they are safe by both the TAHC and USDA.
“I told Miller on the phone after he was describing them to me that it sounded like a gas chamber,” Thorpe said. “He took that out of context and unfortunately made a misquote.”
Miller said that after hearing complaints from ranchers that Texas Animal Health Commission officials were forcing them to endanger cattle, he reached out to the agency “to see if we could resolve the issue.”
“It was very evident what we were doing was off-label,” he said. “The label on Co-Ral specifically says do not use in a non-ventilated area.”
He said, “They’re afraid. They said, ’If we go against (USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) or the Animal Health Commission, we’ll never get out of quarantine.”
He added that only Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service personnel could use Co-Ral at full strength.
“Texas’ animal health department cannot, and they were the ones there,” he said. “There was nobody from APHIS there.”
Miller said he offered Texas Animal Health Commission options, including an injectable called Dectomax that lasts 30 days, dipping vats, hand sprayers, or even using the boxes but keeping the animal’s head outside the box so it doesn’t breathe the fumes.
He said the animal health commission refused.
“They’ve got to use it by label, they can’t just do whatever the hell they want,” he said. “It’s just a power struggle, I think.”