Proposed Animal/Plant Disease and Insect Control Laboratory would share resources, serve all of Maine’s agricultural communities

UMaine Animal Health Lab; photo by Edwin Remsberg
Dr. Anne Lichtenwalner, director of the University of Maine Animal Health Laboratory.

Maine is one of the US states without a veterinary school. We are surrounded by some excellent schools, such as Cornell, University of Pennsylvania, Tufts, and Atlantic Veterinary College on Prince Edward Island. Our students don’t lack for opportunities to obtain an excellent veterinary education, and the state doesn’t lack for excellent veterinarians. Some of the other functions of a state’s veterinary school, however, are served in creative ways.

For instance, often practitioners refer back to their veterinary school for diagnostic support. When some aspects of practice can’t be met in an economical manner by the practitioner (as in the case of large animal necropsy), the need may be met by the veterinary school’s facilities and personnel. In Maine, alumnae may call on their own vet school’s faculty for advice and help, or may have a “favorite” lab to which they submit samples. However, getting samples processed quickly and locally is vital in many cases. As well, shipping large animal cadavers — especially when they may be affected with easily transmissible disease — is inadvisable. For these reasons, having a regionally available, biosecure veterinary diagnostic laboratory is an important aid to livestock health. In Maine, the University of Maine Animal Health Laboratory (a service of Cooperative Extension) has served these purposes, but is hampered by size and location.

There are growing needs for livestock and plant disease surveillance in Maine. USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service statistics for 2013 state that Maine has 8,200 farms, totaling 1.5 million acres. There are over 120,000 head of livestock; about 85,000 of those are cattle. Poultry — small and large farms included — total over 3.5 million.

While the diagnostic needs of Maine’s poultry, dairy, small ruminant, and companion animal owners can be met by a combination of resources, there is no site for contained, biosecure necropsy and disposal of large animal mortalities, so dairy and beef cattle producers are under-served in this respect. The UMaine Animal Heath Lab facility is a small necropsy room located on a busy hallway, and while containment is adequate for low pathogenicity diseases, it’s inadequate for higher level pathogens. Costs of biosecure disposal are high, as well; at $0.70 per pound, disposal costs far exceed the cost of a large animal necropsy.

Currently, the UMaine Animal Heath Lab has an estimated impact of $18 million yearly on Maine agriculture. The lab performs frequent poultry salmonella testing for large and medium-sized farms, as mandated by the FDA; performs mastitis testing for many Maine dairies, allowing early detection and cure of a disease that can cost up to 20% of dairy production; and offers diagnostic support for sheep and goat farmers.

Adding to the diagnostic and service capacity at the UMaine Animal Heath Lab would expand support for Maine’s livestock veterinarians, and allow containment and safe disposal of diseased animals. Plans for the facility, which would be shared by both animal and plant Extension diagnostic labs, include a large alkaline digester, which can effectively, safely and cheaply decontaminate and dispose of cadavers onsite. For large animal vets, the logistics of cadaver disposal (when large-scale composting is not a possibility) can be problematic. An improved lab facility could solve this problem.

In summary, the current animal diagnostic facility is too small, and too outdated, to safely necropsy cattle, horses or large wildlife. The proposed Animal/Plant Disease and Insect Control Laboratory would share resources, serving all of Maine’s agricultural communities.

On November’s ballot, a bond referendum to build a new lab would allow for safe necropsy of cattle, horses, and large wildlife. Visit the following site to explore the ways a new Animal/Plant Disease and Insect Control Laboratory will benefit Maine: