ROMA, Texas—Illegal immigrants and drug traffickers aren’t the only incursions that border ranchers are battling in southeast Texas.
A tiny interloper has brought the area’s cattle industry to its knees. It’s called the fever tick.
Fever ticks can carry a parasite that causes babesiosis, commonly known as cattle fever, which can decimate a herd.
The parasite attacks and destroys the animals’ red blood cells, causing acute anemia, high fever, and enlargement of the spleen and liver—ultimately killing 90 percent of a herd that hasn’t been previously exposed to the parasite, according to the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC).
Cattle rancher Richard Guerra’s 9,000 acres have stood idle for four years, with not a cow in sight and feeder pens overrun by weeds. After being quarantined 22 times in the past 15 years, it has become cost-prohibitive for him to run cattle. At full capacity, he can run 1,000 cattle; now, he stays afloat by leasing his land during hunting season.
Guerra’s ranch sits about a mile north of the U.S.–Mexico border, near Rio Grande City, Texas. The Rio Grande is the international boundary, and no fencing exists in the area. The border is ground zero for fever tick infestations, largely because of cattle and deer crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico and infecting U.S. herds.
“Right now, one of our biggest problems, even though we do have some human trafficking, is the problem with fever tick. Fever tick comes from Mexico. Mexico does nothing to control it,” Guerra said on March 22. “Look at our pens, they’re empty. We got feeder pens right there. We can handle as much as 500 head of steer in there at one time. But right now, they’re empty.”
There is no cure or vaccine for the fever tick, and Guerra’s biggest hope now is for a border wall to be built, cutting access for the wildlife bringing the tick over the border.
“It only takes one fever tick carrying babesiosis to infect a host animal, and it only takes one infected host animal to pass babesiosis to a fever tick,” said Callie Ward, communications director for the TAHC.
Right now, 2,655 premises, totaling 950,500 acres, are under quarantine in Texas, according to TAHC’s February data. Texas was home to 16.4 percent of the nation’s beef cows in 2009, according to Texas A&M University.
Once a fever tick is found on a cow, a ranch goes into quarantine for nine months, under USDA rules. During that time, the cattle must be dipped in a vat every 14 days.
“As a consequence, we have to hire helicopters to do our work—to gather our cattle,” Guerra said. “That’s $350 an hour. Well, that gets pretty expensive. So the point being that by the time I get my cattle out of the ranch, out of a quarantine, I’ve already spent a lot of money. And it could be that, and it mostly is that, I’m not gonna make any money that year because of all these costs.”
The nine-month dipping protocol would hit an average 500 cow-calf ranch with a cost of $250 per cow, as well as a 47 percent increase in cash expenses, and an 80 percent decline in net cash farm income, according to a study published in 2010 by Agricultural and Food Policy Center at Texas A&M University.
The extra costs include the rounding-up and dipping of the cattle every two weeks and increased maintenance and repairs to fencing, due to increased use. The cost doesn’t include cattle deaths, weight loss, and reduced calf numbers as a result of the extra work.
Neighboring ranches also are affected and must undergo tick inspections and two dippings.
Guerra’s son, Jody, who will someday become the fifth-generation on the ranch, said the stigma around the fever tick adds another challenge.
“Lots of cattle buyers now don’t want to buy anything south of San Antonio,” he said. “Even though they might be clean and passed inspection—people are leery of purchasing cattle from this area, just because they don’t want to take a chance.”
Jody estimates that anywhere from 50 percent to 65 percent of the ranchers in the Rio Grande area have stopped production.
“One of the biggest sales yards in Starr County shut down its operation because there’s just not enough cattle production to keep it open,” he said.
Geraldo “Lalo” Garza bought the local sales yards last summer and reopened them in November as Triple G Livestock Auction. But business is slow and it’s an uphill battle. “Right now, we’re losing money,” Garza said. He is hoping his trucking business can support the yards until things pick up.
“My main ranches are right here on the border, on the river side. Most of them have quarantine,” he said. But the next nearest yards are 70 miles away or 140 miles away, so if the tick invasion abates, he’s in a good position.
Fever Tick Background
Fever ticks were once rampant throughout most of the United States, but a concerted, 54-year effort—from 1906 to 1960—pushed the problem back to the U.S.–Mexico border. A buffer zone was created, which includes more than half a million acres, stretching from the Gulf of Mexico near Brownsville, Texas, to Amistad Dam north of Del Rio, Texas.
“Texas is in the midst of an outbreak, which have been happening periodically since 1960,” Ward said. “Many cattle, equine, cervids, and nilgai antelope that cross from Mexico into Texas carry fever ticks. USDA employs mounted tick patrols (tick riders) whose job is to ride horses along the border looking for stray animals that may wander from Mexico. They apprehend and treat the animals.”
Guerra blames Mexico’s nonaction for the fever tick’s regeneration in the area.
“Mexico again does nothing, nada, nothing. So those cattle come across, wildlife comes across,” he said. “Yes, our technology and our advancements in vaccines and all of that, has really helped. But this doesn’t stop the problem. We need to stop the problem at the border. That’s why we’re in favor of a wall.”
Other Border Issues
A border fence would also help control other cross-border problems, such as the human and drug trafficking that invariably encroach onto the Guerra ranch.
“When they get into a gun battle, we can hear them,” Guerra says of the Mexican cartels across the Rio Grande in Miguel Aleman.
“We’ve had occasions on this property where we have had armed intrusions. People with guns have come through here, carrying loads—loads of marijuana, or drugs, or who knows what.”
Guerra considers himself lucky that he’s only ever found one dead body on his ranch.
“I always sleep with two or three guns by my side and during the day, when I’m out and about in my truck, I always carry a firearm with me. Fortunately, I’ve never had to use it—so far.”
But it’s also the repairs needed to fences and gates that add up.
“Anytime these illegals do damage to my property, I’ve got to pay for it, to repair it,” Guerra said.
Jody said things started changing 15 to 20 years ago.
“We’ve seen a change in the type of individual that we encounter. Gone are the days of just a couple of people coming across, you know, looking for some assistance, looking for some direction,” he said. “Now, we’re encountering the groups of individuals who may be escorted by armed individuals. We see more evidence of individuals who are coming across that are now drug smuggling.”
Meanwhile, Guerra remains hopeful that he can get the ranch up and running again before handing it to the next generation.
“My heritage is here. I was born and raised here, so my whole objective is to try to protect what we have. But it’s sad in a way that we’re not able to operate cattle right now because of the fear of the fever tick.”