Your Village: What is a cattle disease doing on my property tax bill?

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Cow — photo by Andrew Duffell, via Wikimedia Commons.

My husband was looking at our most recent property tax statement and saw a charge for “brucellosis” and we were wondering what that 41 cents is for. — Patricia, Iowa City, via email

The short answer is that 41 cents helps ensure Iowa’s cows remain healthy. The slightly longer answer involves keeping cows healthy, plus a confrontation between eastern Iowa farmers and the state National Guard known as the Cow War of 1931.

The 41 cents goes to the Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Eradication Fund, which pays for programs run by the Animal Industry Bureau of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship that prevent the spread of those diseases among the state’s livestock. The programs are largely paid for by appropriations from the federal and state government, but state law mandates any shortfall in funding be made up by adding a fee to property tax bills.

The current levy for the fund is .0031 cents per thousand dollars of assessed value of taxable property. The diseases that small fee helps fight are serious menaces to the state’s livestock.

Brucellosis is a contagious disease caused by bacteria that is primarily found in ruminants — cattle, bison, deer and elk — but also affects humans. In ruminants it is spread through direct contact, and can cause decreased milk production, weight loss, miscarriages, infertility and lameness. Humans typically contract it by drinking raw milk from an infected animal, or eating uncooked meat from one. In humans, brucellosis causes a severe fever and is traditionally known as Malta fever.

Bovine tuberculosis — which causes weight loss, anemia and potentially fatal pneumonia — can be spread by breath, milk, discharging lesions, saliva, urine or feces. Infection in humans is rare, and is usually caused by drinking the raw milk of a tubercular cow.

The state has had a mandatory testing program for brucellosis in cattle since 1939. The mandatory testing program for bovine tuberculosis started ten years earlier, and led to a largely forgotten episode in Iowa history: the Cow War of 1931.

Certain elements of the Cow War seem familiar, such as people rejecting science, in part, because it added to the cost of doing business, and a radio personality stoking fears of a government conspiracy that didn’t exist.

When the state began testing for bovine tuberculosis in 1929, many farmers rejected both the idea that tuberculosis was a serious problem for cattle and that it could be transmitted to humans. They were also concerned about the cost of testing, and the potential that a positive test would lead to the loss of some of their livestock. Skepticism was particularly high in southeastern Iowa’s Cedar County, where fear and uncertainty was being sown by a Muscatine radio station, KTNT.

The station’s owner, Norman Baker, was convinced that the testing program was a government plot against farmers that relied on phony science, and he used KTNT to spread his beliefs. As one history of the Cow War puts it,

Baker verbally assaulted the medical and veterinary professions, Iowa politicians, farm magazines and state universities while fanning the flames of rebellion in Cedar County. He repeatedly spoke out against the TB testing, stating that it aborted cows and dropped their milk production.

Things came to a head in early April 1931, when a group of farmers near Tipton in Cedar County refused to allow a state veterinarian onto their properties to test their cows. Local officials tried to convince the farmers to cooperate, but failed. Assistant State Attorney General Oral Swift was sent to Cedar County to resolve the standoff. It didn’t help. Instead, Swift was threatened by several farmers, and injured when he was shoved into a barbed wire fence.

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Following the barbed wire incident, Iowa Gov. Dan Turner did two things. First, he mobilized the National Guard, ordering guardsmen to Cedar County to ensure the delayed testing was carried out on Monday, April 13. Second, he arranged to meet with representatives of the rebellious farmers that same Monday in Iowa City, in order to personally listen to their concerns.

The National Guard arrived in Cedar County on Monday morning. The veterinarian was allowed onto the farms. The National Guard went home at noon. Turner earned the farmers’ trust during the meeting. The standoff was never repeated.

The state’s brucellosis and tuberculosis eradication programs have been successful. Iowa’s cows are currently free from both diseases, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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