Finding dead cattle from time to time isn't exactly uncommon. Finding a bunch of them all at once is another heartbreaking matter.

An Arizona rancher brought cow-calf pairs down from the mountains a few years ago. By the next morning, cattle were dead and dying; ultimately the toll was 138 cows and calves. No exact cause was ever determined.

That was the catalyst behind the Arizona Livestock Incident Response Team (ALIRT), a system that trains livestock emergency first-responders, equips them and coordinates the state's efforts when an emergency arises.

“The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and Britain's foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) outbreak were wake-up calls, but this case was the impetus for ALIRT,” says Peder Cuneo, University of Arizona (UA) Extension DVM. He also serves as ALIRT field coordinator.

In the Arizona case, lots of things went wrong. The local veterinarian called the state vet's office, but it was Saturday. Nothing got moving until Monday. By then the cattle were already buried, so there was no opportunity to gather necropsy samples. Plus, many of the gathered samples were inadequate or poorly preserved.

In the meantime, the rancher was looking for answers from various parts of the Extension system. For instance, he sent plant samples for toxicology analysis, but the results were never forwarded due to poor communication between departments and agencies. Everyone involved was doing what they were supposed to do, but there was no coordinated system.

As tragic and economically devastating as this loss was for the owner, had the cause been a virulent foreign animal disease (FAD), it may have swept through a wide swath of the nation before state authorities knew there was a problem.

Rick Willer, Arizona State veterinarian when ALIRT began, points to a University of California-Davis study that found that an FMD outbreak in California's big dairy country would cost $3 million for every hour the disease went undetected or undiagnosed. That's the direct cost.

As British livestock producers and the rest of the world watched the burning pyres of cattle, sheep and pigs infected with FMD in 2001, the human toll slipped through the cracks. But Cuneo says there were at least 90 suicides tied to that outbreak, both livestock owners and those involved in depopulating the herds. “The same thing can happen in any nation with a sophisticated livestock production system,” he says.

“It's not a matter of whether a problem will occur, it's a matter of when,” Willer adds.

Everyone's responsible

Bob Kattnig, UA Extension beef specialist, says ALIRT is the result of Arizona cattle producers sitting down with the state vet's office, UA's veterinary diagnostic lab and the UA Extension Service to figure out how to enhance emergency response in the future.

All involved recognized each had a responsibility and no single entity could do it all, Cuneo says. As a group they decided the best solution was to take advantage of the fact that large-animal veterinarians were scattered across the state. The notion was to develop a standard protocol for these first-responders, train them and then outfit them with the necessary equipment to document the event and properly collect and transport samples. That includes everything from GPS units, to digital cameras, to the necessary gear for dealing with hazardous materials.

Incidentally, the responders are trained to protect the emergency site as a possible crime scene so that samples gathered are admissible as court evidence.

The Arizona Cattle Growers Association lobbied for and received the needed dollars through the state legislature. In addition to training and outfitting first-responders, along with funding the necessary expenses, monies also go toward producer outreach programs and continuing education for the responders.

ALIRT is a public service. Producers don't pay for the veterinary and diagnostic costs involved. It's also voluntary, unless an FAD is suspected.

Making connections

ALIRT goes beyond the livestock community, too. The ALIRT group includes: the state environmental protection agency, state law enforcement, state and federal wildlife experts, and a state public health veterinarian. When an ALIRT case is begun, counterparts are notified in neighboring states, including Sonora and Chihuahua in Mexico.

But, Kattnig emphasizes, “Every world animal health emergency starts locally, so it's imperative we respond to every incident.”

Cuneo says one benefit of ALIRT is more producers now report losses. Before, some producers would chalk up a handful of dead cattle to bad luck, rather than pay for a veterinarian to come take a look. Keep in mind this is sprawling, vast ranch country where a section might support a few pairs or fewer.

Next Page: New Mexico has already developed a mirror-image program to ALIRT

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“When we receive a call and determine it requires an ALIRT response, we can have a responder on site within four hours, anywhere in the state,” Cuneo says. “We can have diagnostic samples from the site to our diagnostic lab within 12 hours from anywhere in the state.”

Before ALIRT, in some cases it could take weeks, even months, if ever, to figure out the cause behind animal health emergencies that were determined not to be an FAD. With ALIRT, Cuneo says they either have the final answer or a firm idea within 12-24 hours of notification.

Hiller, now with the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, explains that historically, if the state vet's office got a call about a problem, “we couldn't do anything unless the history indicated it might be an FAD.

“Even if we conducted tests and they were negative, all we could tell the rancher is that we knew what it wasn't. With ALIRT, the funding and mechanism are there to help producers figure out the problem. In addition to providing more service to the producer, ALIRT has enabled the state to expand its ongoing disease surveillance across the state.”

New Mexico has already developed a mirror-image program to ALIRT. And representatives from other states, including some in Mexico, have attended ALIRT education programs; some are in the process of building a program.

“It's a lot cheaper to be prepared to deal with a problem when it arises. For relatively little money we greatly enhanced our response ability in Arizona,” Willer says. “It enhances the ability to safeguard our livestock, that's the bottom line.”

Editor's Note: Learn more at the ALIRT website.