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Hanna Gudknecht, 16, is understandably blunt when asked about not showing her Holstein cow this year due to rising fears about a dairy cattle virus.

"It's really going to suck," said Gudknecht, who attends Kenyon-Wanamingo schools and is a member of the Aspelund Ever Readies 4-H Club.

For rural teens like Gudknecht, summer fairs and livestock shows are a summer highlight. There's satisfaction in seeing the hard work of prepping an animal for judging — the constant clipping, grooming and bathing that begins long before setting foot on the fairgrounds — pay off, not just with blue ribbons but potentially a trip to the Minnesota State Fair. There are friends to be seen and made during competitions, along with the multicolored lights and other delights of the Midway generally accompanying these events.

It's unfortunate that a generation of young livestock exhibitors who already weathered COVID-19 cancellations is now faced with another round of necessary public health precautions that may challenge their ability to show their animals this summer. A highly pathogenic type of influenza typically found in birds has begun to infect dairy cattle. As of July 2, the American Veterinary Medical Association reports that the H5N1 virus has been confirmed in 12 states, with "27 herds in Idaho, 25 each in Michigan and Colorado, 21 in Texas, 12 in Iowa, eight in New Mexico, six in Minnesota, five in South Dakota, four in Kansas, and one each in North Carolina, Ohio, and Wyoming."

While the virus has a high mortality rate in poultry, so far infected cattle appear to recover with supportive care though milk production may be reduced. Still, there's sufficient reason to be cautious. There appears to be cow-to-cow transmission. Along with that, four human cases have been linked to the dairy cattle outbreak. All four of those people have recovered, with the illness in three confined to conjunctivitis-like symptoms, but the cases are a reminder that livestock viruses can pose a threat to human health and other species.

Minnesota state health and agriculture officials are to be commended for setting up sensible new safeguards to prevent livestock competitions from accelerating transmission. In mid-June, the Minnesota Board of Animal Health released new guidelines for showing dairy cattle just in time for summer fairs' high season.

The new precautions don't ban competition. But exhibitors showing a lactating dairy cow will need to present a negative test result for H5N1 within seven days of arriving at the competition and have a certificate of veterinary inspection.

Those requirements remain in place for the remainder of 2024. In addition, the testing must be done at a lab that's in the National Animal Health Laboratory Network (NAHLN). Important to note: The testing is free, with the federal government picking up the expense or reimbursing owners for it.

Minnesota was at the forefront nationally of putting such safeguards in place, and its requirements are more comprehensive than those in many other states. Wisconsin announced similar testing requirements in mid-June. Iowa also will require testing for fairs and exhibitions, but didn't announce measures until June 25, which is regrettable because that state's county fair season gets off to an early start.

North Dakota will require testing for state fair exhibitors, but is only encouraging county fairs and other events to adopt this policy. South Dakota is not requiring testing, though federal testing requirements for interstate travel still apply to it and all other states.

Minnesota's err-on-the-side-of-caution approach is the responsible course of action to protect the state's poultry and dairy cattle industry along with public health.

The new policy has created additional work for organizers of county fairs and other exhibitions. To avoid having to check testing and other requirements, some fairs are temporarily forgoing competitions for milking dairy cows, though calves and "dry cows" can often still compete, according to officials from the Minnesota Federation of County Fairs. The reason why the precautions are focused on milking cattle:

"Milk is the most likely culprit for transmission and poses the highest known risk. Therefore, ensuring lactating dairy are negative before the event reduces the risk of it spreading via milking equipment," said Board of Animal Health spokesman Michael Crusan, who noted that the milking equipment may be shared by exhibitors during a competition. Cattle and other livestock typically stay on site for several days while competition takes place.

Some families are also planning leave their milking cows at home this year to avoid the risk of having a cow return from a fair and potentially infect the herd.

Regrettably, that leaves many disappointed 4-H'ers like Gudknecht.

In times like this, it's important for Minnesota's youthful competitors to remember that one of the four H's in 4-H is "health." The other three: head, heart and hands. This venerable organization has a noble mission that goes far beyond blue ribbons and the show ring. It also has long prepared members to be good citizens on and off the farm, with community service activities a priority throughout the year.

This year, members of 4-H and other youth agricultural clubs find themselves on the front lines against an alarming virus. There's a broader, memorable lesson to be learned. In life, sometimes the collective good involves individual sacrifice. Nevertheless, those who care about their community step up.

Gudknecht understands that. She wants to protect the family's dairy herd and Minnesota agriculture, which is exactly the right attitude. While this is a setback, she knows it's not permanent. "We can always still hope for next year," she said.


Editorial Board members are David Banks, Jill Burcum, Denise Johnson and John Rash. Star Tribune Opinion staff members Maggie Kelly, Kavita Kumar and Elena Neuzil and intern Aurora Weirens also contribute, and Star Tribune CEO and Publisher Steve Grove serves as an adviser to the board.