March 18, 2020

Farming, coronavirus and herd health

Topic: Issues

By Ben LaCross @BenLaCross

The NCAA just banned fans from attending any men’s or women’s college basketball tournament. Good.

The American Farm Bureau recently cancelled its Young Farmers & Ranchers Conference. Good.

Universities across the country are going to all-online learning for the rest of the semester. Good.

It is our responsibility, as citizens of the United States, to take precautions in the face of a global pandemic. The preceding three examples of events being cancelled or limited show responsible behavior that can help mitigate the effects of the coronavirus.

Why does a farmer know this? Herd health.

Although I’m a fruit farmer, not a livestock producer, I know how my friends care for animals on their cattle ranches and hog farms and in their chicken barns. Those farmers, and the veterinarians they work with, are the experts on animal care and herd health. I trust them more than anyone else on this issue.

Livestock farmers are well equipped with knowledge and medicine, under the direction of a veterinarian, to be able to treat a few of their animals. When a small percentage of their herd is sick, farmers can care for the sick animals in between their regular chores and the rest of their busy day. Farmers take a very proactive approach to overall herd health management. They routinely follow veterinarian-approved and prescribed vaccination protocols. They also take the issue of biosecurity very seriously, restricting access to their facilities to minimize the risk of disease transmission.

But, God forbid, if a major percentage of his/her herd got sick all at once, the farmer would be overwhelmed with the care of all of those sick animals. Some may die. More might get sicker. It could be a disaster.

That’s what our health care system is up against in facing the coronavirus pandemic.

All Americans are part of the collective herd of “citizen-livestock” in our country. Yes, we have the freedom to live how we want to live, but we also have a responsibility to the citizen herd health of the country.

If, in a month or two, the coronavirus outbreak is contained and people scream, “See, it was a media hysteria,” good. It means we did our job and limited a potential catastrophe.

But if we don’t take some pretty responsible precautions to help inoculate the collective human herd from COVID-19, that’s on us. All of us.

Coronavirus’s impact on food

Farmers are busy right now, prepping their planters, selecting their seeds and watching the ground dry out from a soggy winter. Yes, watching ground dry is sometimes very productive work on a farm.

These farmers need to get their grain in the ground in the next 60 days or so. If American ports, shipping and logistics are impacted, will these farmers have enough fuel, seed and fertilizer to grow the bread that the breadbasket of America is famous for?

As I write this, the Food and Drug Administration announced the suspension of all inspections of foreign food facilities until April. How will that impact your grocery store? Eat local may have just taken on a whole new meaning.

What happens to our meat and dairy suppliers if processing plant employees are ill because we didn’t take enough early precautions? Heard of the impossible burger? That’s when it’s impossible to get a burger anywhere, anytime.

Our modern food system is a miracle, though, co-operated by farmers, ranchers, harvesters, truckers, processors and grocers. I’m confident that farmers will find a way to grow an abundant crop this year.

I urge everyone to consider the “herd health” approach to this virus. Immediate precautions now and in the next month will assist health professionals in containing the spread.

Meanwhile…farmers taking herd health precautions with their livestock remains an important part of the sturdy bedrock of our nation’s food supply chain.

Ben LaCross, a fruit farmer and Farm Bureau leader in Michigan, is a former chair of the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Young Farmers & Ranchers Committee. Visit his personal website at