Testing method improves management of Johne's disease in cows

MADISON - To be a successful dairy farmer, one must have a healthy herd of cows. But that health is often threatened by the presence of a common, contagious disease called Johne's disease that may require farmers to cull infected cattle.

A professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine has developed a testing method that more precisely describes an animal's level of infection, thereby enabling farmers to make more informed decisions about disease management that could improve herd productivity.

Johne's disease, named after the veterinarian who first isolated the disease-causing bacteria (Mycobacterium paratuberculosis) in 1895, affects one in 50 cows in the United States and one in 20 among the country's dairy cows. Clinical signs include diarrhea, weight loss and lowered milk production. As the disease progresses, it becomes increasingly contagious and, as a result, could devastate a dairy farm by diminishing the herd's productivity.

While two accurate methods for detecting Johne's disease infection exist, both have drawbacks. The fecal culture, which is the most accurate, can take three to four months to complete. This method, as well as the other one - a blood test that takes only a few hours to process - provides only positive or negative results, which are based on a certain number of antibodies detected in the animal's blood.

Usually, all cows that test positive - even though the results might be borderline and the animal could be productive for another two years - are culled for slaughter.

"I think culling for slaughter all cows that test positive for Johne's disease is a little too expensive, a little too drastic," says Michael Collins, a UW-Madison pathology professor who has studied Johne's disease for more than 20 years. "The economic consequences of mistakenly culling a cow due to a false-positive test result are high - roughly $1,300 a cow."

For this reason, Collins has

Contact: Michael Collins
University of Wisconsin-Madison

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