In addition to market volatility threats from the current pandemic, Texas cattle ranchers have been battling another threat: the southern cattle fever tick (Rhipicephalus microplus). This tick can carry pathogens that cause deadly cattle fever, bovine babesiosis, for which there is no vaccine or treatment. When the tick is found on cattle, ranches or even adjacent areas, all cattle must be quarantined – which causes significant economic hardship.

Agricultural Research Service/USDA

The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), together with the Lee and Ramona Bass Foundation, awarded a $50,000 Rapid Outcomes for Agriculture Research (ROAR) grant to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) to research and develop biological control technologies that prevent and contain this parasite.

Cattle fever ticks were eradicated in the US in 1943, with the exception of a permanent quarantine area along the border between South Texas and Mexico. White-tailed deer and nilgai facilitated the reintroduction of the tick outside the quarantine areas and into other areas of Texas. Cattle fever ticks are a threat if they carry the cattle fever pathogens, which can kill 70 to 90 percent of infected cattle. While no ticks in the US have tested positive for the pathogens, they are present in Mexico.

“An outbreak of cattle fever could decimate the Texas cattle industry,” said FFAR Executive Director Sally Rockey. “The best way to protect cattle and Texas ranchers is to halt the tick invasion in the US. FFAR is funding research to identify a natural tick predator that can be introduced in Texas to protect animal health and ranchers’ livelihoods.”

Spraying pesticides to control the ticks in vast, rugged areas or on wildlife is not feasible. Instead, USDA-ARS researchers are studying parasitoids, predatory insects that prey on the ticks, to identify a natural biological control that could be introduced in Texas. As the southern cattle fever tick is native to parts of Asia, the researchers are identifying parasitoids from Vietnam and other parts of the native range to help control the tick’s spread.

USDA-ARS’s work in Vietnam will test the cattle fever tick’s susceptibility to a variety of parasitic Asian tick predators and determine if any can be imported to combat the spread of the tick in Texas. Researchers have the expertise to identify a biological control agent that will only prey on cattle fever ticks and not interfere with other species.

The Lee and Ramona Bass Foundation contributed $25,000 to match FFAR’s investment of $25,000 in this important research.