Sat. May 18th, 2024

How bird flu could threaten cow cuddling. Yes, it is a thing

MONEE, Illinois — Farmer Luz Klotz straightened the brightly striped hair bow on Reba, a 1,600-pound heifer lounging on the ground under twinkling fairy lights. Teenager Joey Pachl, hoping to impress his girlfriend with an invitation to the high school prom, had paid $75 for an hour-long cow cuddling session at the farm.

Pachl successfully wowed animal-loving girlfriend Emma. For Luz and husband Dan Klotz, such visitors have become key to covering the feed bills and keeping their small farm running.

Paying farmers to snuggle up with half-ton heifers is all the rage in the United States thanks to social media. For visitors, cuddling dairy or beef cattle can be therapeutic, or simply an adventure for city dwellers looking for good old country fun.

But this practice of opening the barn door to the public is facing a new risk, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed bird flu in dairy herds in nine states.

Scientists have said the outbreak is likely more widespread across the nation’s more than 26,000 licensed dairy farms based on findings of H5N1 particles in about 20% of milk samples. One Texas dairy worker tested positive for the virus, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have monitored more than 100 people who have been exposed.

Government officials say the risk of human infection is low. But state and federal government officials are urging cattle and dairy farmers to limit outside visitors as much as possible.

In Michigan, where one dairy herd has tested positive, the head of the state’s agriculture department this week signed an emergency response order with new sanitation measures and access limitations to dairy and commercial poultry farms starting May 8.

The order does not expressly prohibit cow cuddling. But Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development director Tim Boring told Reuters, “From a human to animal health standpoint, now is not a good time to cuddle cows. This is to protect the cows and people.”

Any restrictions could pose economic trouble for small family farms that rely on cow-cuddling and other agro-tourism practices to provide a financial lifeline. Cow cuddling sessions at the De Vor Dairy Farm and Creamery in northern Michigan book up weeks in advance and cover the farm’s insurance bill.

“I’m not worried about bird flu, because the farm is already open to the public, and we already have safety measures in place,” said farmer Henk De Vor.

Luz and Dan Klotz in Illinois, who own Luz Farms, also have protective measures in place to ensure the safety of their visitors and to keep their farm operating. One hour of cow cuddling pays for one bale of hay — enough to keep their small herd fed for a week.

“It helps a lot,” Dan Klotz said.

Weekend sessions at Clarksville Cow Cuddling, at Mary’s Land Farm in Maryland, are booked for the next two months. Demand also is high at The Cuddle Corral in Arizona, the Texas Gaushala farm in Texas and the Sunset View Creamery in New York, farmers said.

From yoga classes with baby goats and feeding baby piglets, to corn mazes and you-pick sunflower fields, more than 28,600 U.S. farms offered agro-tourism or recreational services of some sort on their land in 2022 — generating $1.26 billion in income, 32% more than five years earlier, USDA data shows.

Such revenue streams are key right now: U.S. farm incomes are expected to take the biggest plunge in 18 years as crop prices slump, USDA data shows, and small farms are especially hurting.

“Agro-tourism is a real economic driver for small farmers who have found a niche,” said Curt Covington, senior director of institution credit at AgAmerica Lending.

She meant ‘yes’

Bird flu has spread from migratory birds to dozens of species globally, concerning public health experts. USDA believes the virus is spreading among cattle primarily through contact with raw milk, Rosemary Sifford, the agency’s chief veterinary officer, said on a media call.

While USDA has not publicly named the dairies where cows tested positive, the agency told Reuters the size of affected dairy farms ranges from 300 to 23,000 head.

“Regardless of the size of operation, all dairy producers should redouble biosecurity efforts and be vigilant about monitoring for and controlling disease in their herds,” a spokesperson for USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said in a statement.

Cow-cuddling hosts say they take steps to ensure the safety of visitors and their animals.

It was Linda Pachl, Joey’s mom, who first saw a post about Luz Farms’ cow snuggle sessions on Facebook — and suggested the idea to her son. Joey asked the farmers if they could make up a banner in Emma’s school colors that said, “Prom?”

A week later, as country music crooned over the barn’s battered radio, the banner was slung over the body of Yogi, a calf on the farm. Pachl nudged girlfriend Emma Maiers’ shoulder. “Well?” he asked.

“I love cows!” squealed Emma, 16. Pachl grinned. Not exactly the answer he was expecting, but he figured she meant “yes.”

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