Even when dealing with unpredictable emergencies, a little preparation can go a long way.

As we’ve seen all too often, livestock-related emergencies can come in many forms. From blizzards, floods, fires or deep-freeze, to highway accidents and the specter of foreign animal disease outbreaks, cattle operations face an array of natural and man-made threats.

By their nature, these events tend to be unexpected, limiting the ability of producers and others to respond and prevent losses. The industry, however, increasingly recognizes that planning and preparation for multiple contingencies can help minimize the impact when emergencies occur.

Plan ahead or fall behindWhile localized emergencies happen regularly, perhaps the greatest threat on a regional or national scale is that of an outbreak of disease such as foot-and-mouth disease (FMD). The United States has been FMD-free since 1929, but the highly contagious disease remains endemic to much of the world, creating a threat for its reintroduction into U.S. herds.

A recent study from researchers at the USDA, Colorado State University, University of Warwick in the United Kingdom and Linköping University in Sweden found that rapid implementation of movement controls at the county level play an important role in stopping or slowing the spread of a fast-spreading animal disease such as FMD. Their findings were published in the March 2014 issue of the online scientific journal PLOS ONE.

Without early detection and intervention, the economic impact of a U.S. outbreak of FMD could reach into the billions of dollars, according to USDA, but rapid and appropriate response could significantly limit the scope and duration of the disease impact.

The authors of the PLOS ONE article reviewed Interstate Certificates of Veterinary Inspection documents to develop a network of cattle movement in the country and combined that with information about the spread of an FMD-like virus to estimate that the largest outbreak in the United States could reach 40 percent of U.S. counties and infect more than 120,000 premises if uncontrolled. Upon detection of an infection, cattle shipments from the infected area are likely to be banned to prevent further spread. According to the article, with rapid detection, county-level movement bans instead of state- or national-level bans substantially reduce the epidemic extent, size and infection risk. If detection is delayed, however, state-level bans could become necessary to reduce spread of the disease.

Plan to respond

Achieving that goal of rapid response requires planning and preparation on the part of local, state and regional agencies in cooperation with the livestock industry. That type of planning has been underway in the Texas Panhandle for several years.

Under the leadership of the Panhandle Regional Planning Commission, an advisory committee involving representatives from the region’s major livestock producer associations, academia, emergency management and state and federal agencies that govern agriculture operations oversaw development of Feedyard Biosecurity and Business Continuity Plans for the region.

This multi-year collaborative planning process focused on three key areas, says Texas Cattle Feeders Association vice president Ben Weinheimer. Those include developing feedyard biosecurity templates, business continuity plans to help restore and protect commerce during an outbreak and an overall plan for response to an outbreak of disease such as FMD in the region.

The process, Weinheimer says, involved working with feedyards to execute tests simulating an outbreak, and validating the results of those tests with other feedyards to develop templates for feedyard biosecurity and business continuity plans. Those templates provide flexibility for individual feedyards to customize their own plans to mitigate potential hazards and vulnerabilities.

Although developed primarily to address a disease outbreak, Weinheimer says the plans include tools and processes that also could help feedyards respond to natural events such as severe ice storms or tornados.

Ranchers play a key role

Timely and effective response to an FMD outbreak depends largely on the willingness of livestock producers to report any suspicious disease and comply with movement restrictions once an outbreak is confirmed. The extent to which they will do so depends on how they perceive the risk to their own operations and to the industry overall.

Amy Delgado, DVM, MS, PhD, an epidemiologist with USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, recently conducted research in Texas to examine the factors influencing the likelihood of producers reporting disease and complying with biosecurity measures during an outbreak.

The connection between risk perception, risk preparedness and willingness to act is unclear, Delgado says. People comprehend risk as either analytical or experiential but generally make subjective decisions based on their own experiences rather than objective analysis of risk. Direct experience has a strong but mixed effect on perception, depending on how those experiences turned out. In the absence of direct experience, trust in authorities and confidence in their actions is the second-most important factor influencing actions.

In her research, which involved surveys of 4,000 cow-calf producers in Texas, Delgado found that, in general, the likelihood of producers reporting cattle with clinical signs prior to or during an outbreak, and complying with bans on cattle movement or orders to gather and hold cattle, correlates, to a point, with their perception of risk. Ranchers with higher perception of risk generally are more likely to report and comply, but at the extreme, among producers who see economic devastation as a certain outcome from a disease outbreak, likelihood of compliance goes down.

As for trust in government agencies, the research shows those dealing primarily with agriculture agencies such as USDA, Texas Animal Health Commission or Texas Department of Agriculture have a higher level of trust than other government agencies that could be involved such as the Department of Homeland Security, Environmental Protection Agency or Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Overall, a large majority of Texas ranchers indicate they would respond appropriately to a disease outbreak. On a five-point scale ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree, 92 percent either mildly or strongly agreed they would report disease prior to an outbreak, and 94 percent provided similar responses regarding reporting during an outbreak. Ninety-one percent mildly or strongly agreed they would comply with gather-and-hold requirements, and 97 percent agreed they would obey movement restrictions.

However, 6 percent strongly disagreed they would report prior to an outbreak, and 7 percent strongly disagreed they would comply with gather-and-hold requirements. Those few create a concern, as delays in reporting disease or complying with biosecurity protocols could increase the scope and duration of an outbreak, at great cost to producers and the industry. The results suggest a need for continued education to build awareness that the risk is real, but the cause is not hopeless.