COVID-19: Lessons Learned from a Skagit Dairy Farmer

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Guest Author: Skagit County Commissioner, Ron Wesen

As many of you know, I am a fourth-generation dairy farmer. Herd management, which is key in dairy farming, involves creating the conditions that allow cattle to thrive and includes everything from cow nutrition, to farm finances, to cattle comfort and milking. It also includes the important area of disease management.

As a Skagit County Commissioner, much of my time lately has been focused on working with our Public Health officials and medical professionals to slow the spread of COVID-19. As my time in the dairy industry has often been focused on preventing the spread of communicable diseases in cattle, local coronavirus efforts are familiar to me in many ways.

A number of common communicable diseases can affect a herd. Just like humans, some cattle are going to become ill even when using the best management practices. Unchecked, these diseases can drastically reduce milk output and, in some cases, affect the safety of the milk product for consumers. Disease is not something dairy farmers take lightly. Some of these illnesses do not have a medical cure or the treatment of cattle conflicts with national organic standards. Instead, farmers regularly use a number of strategies to prevent illness from spreading through the herd:

  • Separating sick cows from healthy ones keeps illness from spreading either through secretions or close contact.
  • Keeping a clean, dry, comfortable environment reduces the cows’ stress (and makes it more likely they will recover) and keeping the area as clean as possible prevents disease spread through surface contact.
  • Wearing gloves during milking time reduces the spread of certain diseases of the udder, like mastitis.
  • We use iodine to disinfect milking equipment between every cow.
  • Farmers test and isolate any new cattle before bringing them into the herd to ensure that cows aren’t infected with a disease that can spread.
  • Making sure that cattle are healthy before they arrive on the farm can save a lot of heartache later.

Does this sound familiar to you? It should. It’s physical distancing and good hygiene.

We use these techniques because, like COVID-19, many herd diseases can be passed from cow to cow even when the animals do not yet show symptoms.Although tests exist for many illnesses, it’s still possible for some diseases to spread between cattle before any test can detect them. Also, cattle may become infected after you have tested. Testing is a tool, not a silver bullet, so physical distancing is key.

Further, as the old adage goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Treating communicable disease outbreaks in a herd can be very expensive for farmers and have long-term repercussions for the productivity of the farm. Regularly using physical distancing practices and good hygiene keeps disease from becoming rampant in dairy herds. Continuing to stay home, stay healthy will likewise keep Skagit County from potentially reaching a crisis situation in our food banks, social service organizations, hospitals and other medical services.

I know physical distancing works and that it is the best tool for stopping the spread of COVID-19 because I’ve seen it work every single day on the farm. For generations, ranchers have relied on these tried and true measures for promoting the health of a herd.

Obviously, this isn’t a perfect comparison; people aren’t cows. For one, cows don’t suffer economic hardship from physical distancing – farmers continue to feed animals regardless of whether or not they’re being milked or are “working.” However, we can see that social distancing is working among people, as it does with cattle, and slowing the transmission COVID-19 in Skagit County. We have seen long-term success in our local dairy industry, and we have demonstrated success among Skagitonians in our open and safe hospitals, as well as our low level of coronavirus illness and loss of life.

As we wait for a vaccine, we will need a robust statewide contact tracing process and enough supplies to test people frequently before we can begin reopening large portions of our community. This is our new normal. We’ll have to continue observing many of these practices, much like our dairy farmers have been doing for hundreds of years.

Thank you to everyone who has been practicing physical distancing and following Governor Inslee’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy guidelines. My fellow Commissioners and I are so proud to represent each and every one of you. Please, continue to think like a dairy farmer: stay strong, stay home, and stay healthy.

Skagit County Commissioner, Ron Wesen.
Ron Wesen, Skagit County Commissioner and fourth-generation dairy farmer.