Editor’s Note: this is the sixth of eight biweekly columns in which the Department of Natural Resources Secretary will try to answer some of the many questions and concerns related to Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in Wisconsin.

This week, I’m turning my pen over to Rod Nilsestuen, Secretary of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) to answer your questions about farm-raised deer.

How big is this industry in Wisconsin?

As Wisconsin agriculture goes, farm-raised deer is a relatively small segment. There are about 820 deer and elk farms, compared with 17,000 dairy operations. We have about 33,000 deer and elk on farms. That compares with more than three million head of cattle, half a million swine, 6.1 million chickens and 80,000 sheep. Despite those small numbers, a rough analysis puts the economic impact of Wisconsin’s deer and elk farms at more than $24 million a year.

There was a time when landowners could fence in a piece of land and buy the deer on it from the DNR. That practice is no longer allowed. Farmers must buy their animals from breeders or other farmers or breed their own animals. Also, we are talking about several species of cervids besides white-tailed deer: elk, red deer, sika deer, fallow deer and reindeer.

What rules govern these farms?

While CWD may be new to Wisconsin, the DATCP has a long history of identifying and managing animal diseases. We do that by regulating livestock, and deer and elk farms are among the most highly regulated agricultural operations in Wisconsin. Let’s look at some of the rules these producers must follow:

  • Monitoring

    Farmers cannot move deer and elk off the farm unless the business is enrolled in the CWD monitoring programs. This means in order to function as a business they must be enrolled. Enrollment demands an initial herd census with official animal identification and annual reports accounting for where every single animal on the farm came from or went in the past year.

  • CWD Testing

    Every deer or elk 16 months or older that dies on a Wisconsin farm or goes to slaughter must be tested for CWD. This includes hobby farms that are not enrolled in the monitoring program and hunting preserves. To date, we have tested nearly 3,700 farm-raised deer and elk.

  • Tuberculosis Testing

    Deer and elk herds must have annual TB tests if the owner sells live animals other than for slaughter.

  • Imports

    Deer and elk imported into Wisconsin require official identification numbers, a permit from the State Veterinarian, a certificate of veterinary inspection, proof that they are free of TB, and documentation that they come from a herd with no signs of CWD in the past five years. This last requirement amounts to a temporary moratorium on many deer and elk imports because most states did not begin surveillance until CWD hit Wisconsin showing that it was not just a disease “out West.”

  • Escapes

    Deer and elk farmers are required to meet fencing standards. Our inspectors do visit farms and DNR wardens keep an eye out, too. We certainly welcome reports from citizens when fences are down or gates open. Producers are required to report escapes within 48 hours. The DNR has authority to kill escaped farm-raised animals that are not immediately recaptured.

  • Feed Deer feed, like cattle feed, is subject to a federal ban on most proteins from mammals. This is based on the theory that nearly indestructible prions might be present in these proteins. Prions are the cause of CWD and related diseases such as mad cow. Inspections in Wisconsin show that our feed producers and distributors comply with the ban. Nationwide, compliance has been excellent and extensive Internet searches involving our feed specialist and his counterparts in other states have turned up few violators.

How prevalent is CWD among Wisconsin’s farm-raised deer?

From those 3,700 tests I mentioned, we have found eight cases of CWD on Wisconsin farms: one whitetail on a Portage County hunting preserve; six whitetails from a Walworth County farm that we believe came from the same source as the Portage County animal; and one elk in a Manitowoc County farm that came from an infected herd in Minnesota. We destroyed the Walworth and Manitowoc County herds and have ordered destruction of the Portage County herd and the source herd for that animal. Owners of those two herds are contesting the order and their animals remain under quarantine.

We currently have 13 herds under quarantine because they contain animals that may have been exposed to CWD. In some cases, the owners bought animals from herds later found to be infected with CWD while others are within Wisconsin’s CWD zone and may have been exposed to infected free-ranging deer.

Isn’t it likely that CWD came from farm-raised deer?

As Secretary Hassett has pointed out in a previous column, we are unlikely to ever know how CWD came to our state. Its long incubation period makes it virtually impossible to trace. The cases that have appeared in the CWD wild deer zones and those that have appeared on farms have been distant from one another. The best thing we – DNR and DATCP – can do is to continue to work together, using the best science available to stop the disease in southwest Wisconsin and on farms, and prevent outbreaks in other parts of the state.