Livestock producers on Wednesday called for continued funding of animal disease prevention programs in the upcoming farm bill amid the threats posed by Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, African Swine Fever, Foot and Mouth Disease and other maladies to U.S. animal production.

Representatives of the American Sheep Industry Association, the National Turkey Federation, the National Pork Producers Council and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association urged the House Agriculture Committee to protect the National Animal Disease Preparedness and Response Program and other animal health initiatives in the 2023 farm bill during a wide-ranging hearing Wednesday.

John Zimmerman, a turkey grower from Northfield, Minnesota, told lawmakers that dealing with HPAI has "put a tremendous strain" on the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. The disease, which has had a recurring presence on U.S. poultry farms for several years, has resulted in the culling of nearly 60 million birds from commercial and backyard flocks.

Zimmerman said the agency is currently struggling to hire enough staff to manage the disease. He said the agency needs at least 150 additional full-time employees to "return to normal strength" and urged Congress to provide more funding to help the agency better compete with the private sector.

"It not only will help speed the end of this outbreak; it will allow for the type of effective, rapid response that will be needed in any future outbreak," Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman urged Congress to continue funding APHIS Wild Bird Surveillance, which monitors the disease in wild birds, as well as updated indemnity payments for HPAI outbreaks. He also urged Congress to continue funding the National Animal Disease Vaccine and Veterinary Countermeasures Bank, which stockpiles vaccines for future outbreaks, and the National Animal Health Monitoring System Laboratory Network (NAHLN).

Zimmerman also said NTF does not want USDA to approve a vaccination for commercial HPAI flocks if that vaccine would damage poultry or egg export opportunities.

"We want to make sure — I think all the poultry groups are in agreement on this — that we will not pursue a vaccine until the trade issues are taken care of and that there will be no damage to our trade agreements if we start to vaccinate," Zimmerman said.

Scott Hays, the president of the National Pork Producers Council, and Laurie Hubbard, who sits on the board of the American Sheep Industry Association, both told lawmakers that supporting the National Vaccine Bank and NAHLN would be important for protecting pork and sheep producers from Foot and Mouth Disease and other foreign animal diseases. 

Hays also said funding for the Feral Swine Eradication and Control Pilot Program should be increased in the Farm Bill. Feral hogs in other countries have been notorious carriers of African Swine Fever, a fatal hog disease that has not yet spread to the U.S., he said.

Hays said the USDA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection previously relied on international traveler and commercial traffic user fees to fund inspections. He said APHIS lost its authority to do so last year, however, under a court ruling and asked Congress to restore the authority in the Farm Bill.

"The loss of this longstanding authority to collect reserve funds destabilizes AQI funding and threatens the effectiveness of its programs," Hays said, referring to the Agricultural Quarantine and Inspection Services User Fees Program.

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Hays also said NPPC supports the Beagle Brigade Act, which would authorize the National Detector Dog Training Center in Georgia. He said detector dogs were "critical" to protecting the nation from ASF.

Todd Wilkinson, president of the NCBA, asked lawmakers to fund electronic identification tags for APHIS to provide to producers. The agency recently proposed a rule that would require electronically identifiable ear tags on adult cattle moving across state lines, which drew criticism from some members of the beef community.

Wilkinson said NCBA sees animal disease traceability as an "essential component" of protecting U.S. cattle from foreign animal diseases, and said a traceability rule should "operate at the speed of commerce," come at a limited cost for producers and include strict data integrity parameters. 

Representatives of the North American Meat Institute, which represents beef processors, and the Intertribal Agriculture Council also testified.

Bryan Burns, the vice president and associate general council for NAMI, said meat packers have struggled to access labor and praised plans by Chairman Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., to establish an agriculture workforce task force group to study labor issues. 

Kelsey Scott, director of programs for the Intertribal Agriculture Council, said Congress should make USDA farm lending offerings more attractive to family operations and make disaster assistance "more flexible and responsive."  

"We must abolish the suggestion that family operations have to be subsidized by off-farm incomes, we need to prioritize lowering the average age of producers, and we must focus on increasing equity for the smaller family farms that are the foundations for rural communities," Scott said.

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