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Old-time Florida cattle ranchers remember, fear flesh-eating screwworm

The price of cows has plummeted by half since last year, leaving farmers hoping just to break even for the season. Worse, an infestation of the New World screwworm could soon threaten the cattle industry.
The price of cows has plummeted by half since last year, leaving farmers hoping just to break even for the season. Worse, an infestation of the New World screwworm could soon threaten the cattle industry. AP

Cattle ranchers can tell you all about the screwworm.

They’ll recall how their fathers and grandfathers spent their days wrangling newborn calves in the woods, “doctoring” their open navels with pine tar before the flesh-eating maggots killed them.

That was back in the 1940s and ’50s, before scientists found a way to eradicate the pests that cost the Southeast’s cattle industry $20 million a year.

They were long gone, until this month, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that an infestation of the New World screwworm has been killing an endangered deer species in the Florida Keys. The threat comes at a particularly rough time in the cattle industry. The price of cows has plummeted by half since last year, leaving local farmers hoping just to break even for the season.

“It was too good of a good thing for too long,” lamented 53-year-old Curtis Clark, co-owner of C&C Cattle Co. in Pasco County. He has seen the price of cows at the Lakeland cattle auction rise steadily since 2012, then drop from $2 a pound to 90 cents in the past year.

Earlow Costine, 69, of Lakeland, is one of the few cattlemen still in the business who remembers dealing with the screwworm.

“People today don’t know how bad it was,” Costine said.

He remembered as a 10 year-old boy going out into the woods and restraining the calves as his father scraped out the maggots and treated the wound.

“The navel was the worst place, though they’d get the teeth and the eyes,” he said. “If you didn’t get them out of the baby it was dead.”

It is unclear why or how the screwworm has re-emerged in the Keys. Agriculture interests are on high alert because the screwworm flies lay their eggs in the open wounds of any warm-blooded mammal, including pets and sometimes even humans. When the eggs hatch, the larvae eat the living flesh until they are big enough to drop off their host and grow into flies. In addition to biological controls, agriculture officials have set up checkpoints in the Keys to check pets for any signs of the screwworm to prevent them from spreading.

Farmers are paying attention to the issue, though some say it is premature to start worrying. But not Costine.

“If the screwworm was to come back to Florida, we can just close the doors on the market,” he said.

The state is working to prevent that from happening. Officials have released thousands of male flies made sterile through radiation, which is supposed to stop the females from laying eggs in the flesh of warm-blooded mammals and therefore break the cycle.

yet:

“Florida is a very mobile state,” said Bridget Carlisle, a livestock agent at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “It’s possible it could spread further, but they don’t need to panic about it yet.”

The news comes at a difficult time for the state’s agriculture industry. Officials announced this week that citrus greening disease has cut orange production by 70 percent during the past 20 years, with an especially bleak outlook for the coming season.

Even without the risk of a screwworm epidemic, the cattle industry is likely going to see difficult times ahead.

“We’re coming off a bubble,” said Craig VanDyke, an analyst with Chicago advisory firm Top Third Ag Marketing. “We’re coming back to reality and unfortunately that fall is especially devastating at the rate it’s falling.”

McKendree, a 28-year-old cattleman from Pasco County, bought about 50 young female cows for about $2,800 a head last year, but now they’re only worth about $1,200 with a calf selling for half that.

“We didn’t think it would just drop like it did,” he said.

Most of Florida’s cattle production is in calves, which are sold when they are between six and about 12 months old to farmers in the Midwest, who will fatten them up for two or three years before they are big enough to be slaughtered and sold on grocery store shelves.

The pork production cycle works more quickly. Rather than carrying one offspring a year like a cow, a sow can birth 20 piglets a year.

The dramatic fall of calf prices this year is in part a result of skyrocketing oil and corn prices in 2008, when the entire livestock industry pumped the breaks on their productions, said William Hahn, an agricultural economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It took a years for the market to recover enough to start growing again, and the bubble emerged.

Dave Tomkow, co-owner of the Cattlemen’s Livestock Auction Market in Lakeland and the Tomkow Brothers Farm, said he isn’t particularly hopeful for the future.

“Last year was the best it’s ever been and probably the best we’ll ever see,” he said.

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