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Livestock producers get crash course

SHELDON, Iowa -- As public health agencies develop response plans for a potential disease pandemic, professionals in animal health are also laying the groundwork to educate livestock producers on the risks and possible spread of diseases.

Such was the case during a livestock risk management training Tuesday night in Sheldon.

With an agriculture industry valued at an estimated $11.3 billion, Iowa could stand to lose plenty if an epidemic of foot and mouth disease, swine flu or some unknown disease spreads through the state's livestock operations.

Al Grigg, director of Lyon and Osceola County Extension -- two of the six counties sponsoring the Iowa State University training -- said that within Lyon, Osceola, Sioux, O'Brien, Plymouth and Cherokee counties alone, animal agriculture is valued at nearly $1.2 billion.

Keeping livestock operations free from contagious disease is a real concern, but there are things producers can do to protect their herds from getting sick and spreading disease to other animals.

Danelle Bickett-Weddle, a veterinarian who is also educated in public health, provided the more than two dozen attendees with an update on avian flu and an overview of how the disease can spread and mutate to other animals and humans. She offered tips on what livestock producers can do on their farm to help protect the food system.

With the continued spread of avian flu and the media coverage it generates, Weddle offered producers some perspective Tuesday, saying human influenza still has the greatest impact on the population -- causing an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 deaths annually.

By comparison, avian flu is blamed for approximately 125 deaths since it was first discovered in 2003.

Avian flu is transmitted through the feces of free-flying aquatic birds. The disease can spread to animals and humans via contaminated water, direct contact with objects such as chains, brushes, clothing or bedding that may contain feces from infected waterfowl, or through the air.

According to Weddle, swine is a known mixing agent for influenza, meaning that if a pig contracts the avian flu, it could mix with a human flu strain to create new strains of the flu virus.

"That's why (avian flu) is a problem in China," said Weddle, adding that Chinese farms force birds, swine and humans to live together in small spaces.

While the overall risk of humans in the United States getting avian flu is "very low," Weddle said the cultural practices in China create high occupational exposure to the virus.

Even with the "very low" risk to humans in the United States, Weddle said the government has taken steps to reduce the possibility of exposure to avian flu. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has placed import restrictions on any animal entering the country, surveillance has been stepped up along borders with Canada and Mexico, and a national control program has been initiated to focus on the H5 and H7 strains of the flu virus.

At the same time, people are being trained to recognize symptoms of avian flu and researchers are working on improving diagnostics and developing a rapid test for the virus.

As those practices continue, Weddle said farmers can also help reduce the risk or spread of disease. Steps such as posting signs or establishing a gated entrance to reduce the number of people entering the farm -- or simply disinfecting boots when moving between livestock pens -- can help.

"We need to realize the importance of livestock," she said. "If we can manage or mitigate some diseases, we can reduce the number of outbreaks."

Weddle encouraged producers to develop the belief that disease outbreaks can and do happen, and to realize that they have too much invested financially in their livestock operations to lose if there is an outbreak.

Weddle left attendees with a six-page checklist of steps they can take to reduce the risk of spreading disease in their livestock operation. The list was developed by a team of veterinarians, with the focus on taking minimal steps that will be the most effective.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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