Testing our herd of cattle

There are a lot of similarities between cattle and humans, this always surprises me and is probably the reason I love the big lugs so much! This month we were scheduled to test our herd for TB, Bovine Tuberculosis. It's an infectious disease in cattle which can also infect humans, deer, goats, pigs, cats, dogs and badgers; in cattle it is mainly a respiratory disease.

Have you ever had a TB test? I did back in high school when I started working at the hospital and I had way less anxiety over my procedure than my cows being tested. Woof! I was an emotional-eating-crying wreck.  The test is conducted by the State of Michigan and would require us to test every bovine on the farm over 12 months of age. While the test is administered the farm is quarantined from selling or purchasing livestock and the test can be as short as 4 days to as long as a couple months. In our region the test is not a regular requirement, but our farm was randomly selected to test during the 2020-2021 period. 

Testing dairy cattle for TB

Our testing started on a Tuesday giving all the animals a shot under the tail, we were able to simply run majority of the animals through the parlor and our dry (non-milking cows) through a head shoot.

The first test is used to detect possible carriers of bovine tuberculosis using a Caudal Fold Tuberculin (CFT) test, in which a small amount of purified protein derivative tuberculin is injected into at the base of the tail. The results were read 72 hours later on Friday of that week. If negative, no further action was required. If positive, the cow is classified as a suspect and requires further testing.

How common is a positive TB test in dairy cattle

Tests aren't perfect and there will be some suspects, the test reports an expected 1-2% false positive rate -- but we had a lot. A LOT of suspect cows and my pessimistic heart in lock down. Those suspects cows were given a second test on the side of their neck that would need to be tested in another 72 hours.

Something that really pulled on us was realizing that nearly all of our suspect cows were in the same number range, meaning they grew up together and were housed together over the two years it takes cows to mature and join the milking herd. 

Remember, FIRST generation farmers here 🖐 we are generally broke and don't have what we need when we need it. Mainly, we don't have enough barns on our farm to house young stock so for many years we rented barns and property around the county to raise our heifers until they calved and could return to the home farm. Traveling to care for cattle off the farm was miserable most days, and usually they weren't housed in ideal locations -- again the money issue.

We had a bad run of ring worm and coccydiosis with the heifers off the farm, frozen water wells and drinking from a nearby creek. We fought hard to keep them alive, sometimes bringing them back to hutches and on milk. We were spending a lot of money to house them, feed them, treat them, drive twice a day to feed them.... that's why we decided to stop raising our young stock a few years ago. With low milk prices these replacements for our milking herd were just costing us more money than they were worth. In 2019 we sold a majority of our young animals and moved forward with the animals that would fit on our home farm in the barn space we have.

....back to the TB testing.

I went from being so proud of ourselves for fighting to save these animals to disappointed that we saved these sickly little bitches with a lot of money and little return, and Now SUSPECTS?! 🤦‍♀️ Did I mention I cried?? I looked at my husband and said "just say the word and I'll agree to selling, I am about done".

The second test these animals went thru included having two spots on the neck trimmed and measured, then two types of tuberculin, one made from killed M. bovis and the other from killed Mycobacterium avium, are injected under the outer layer of the skin. The testing veterinarian came back on the following Monday to check our suspect cows. He measured each injection on the cows neck looking for a site reaction between the two that required the animal to go for further testing. Luckily on Monday we were cleared from quarantine as none of our suspects reacted to the second TB Test in such a way that required further action. 


We could relax, right! ...but my rose colored glasses are gone. I am looking at this operation differently and I don't know which direction to go. I had imagined for a few days how different our life could be without a dairy farm and while it scared me I wonder if now I am ready? Fortunately (or maybe unfortunately never who really knows) my husband and I never both seem to be down at the same time. While I'm feeling unsettled here in this moment he is grounded and carrying the weight of our business. We are still moving forward as a dairy farming family 🖤

Xo, Nicole 


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