In New ‘Spray Box’ Decision, Sid Miller Dances Himself Right Back to Where He Started

In a dizzying two weeks for the Texas ag commissioner, cattle spray boxes have been closed and reopened with little explanation.


Illustration/Sunny Sone

For the last two weeks, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller has choreographed a dizzying do-si-do with cattle ranchers, state and federal regulators and a despised, eight-legged critter.

It’s taken just 11 days for Miller to personally go to war with federal and state agencies over a pesticide spraying program, to call the agencies chicken for not showing up to a meeting, to draw the ire of powerful farm and ranch lobbying groups, and when all was said and done, to do a 180-degree turn in an attempt to save face. When the music stopped, so to speak, little had changed and nothing had been accomplished: a dance many Texas politicians know by heart.     

It started last week, when Miller surprised cattle pesticide applicators in Raymondville after fielding complaints from South Texas ranchers that chemical spraying killed their cattle. Miller decided that Bayer’s Co-Ral, a chemical used to kill the disease-harboring fever tick, was being misapplied. He shut down 16 “spray boxes,” small, mobile metal chutes where cows are herded single-file and doused with poison to rid them of the fever tick. The pesticide was being applied in a confined, poorly ventilated space — a violation of the chemical’s federally approved label — and no licensed pesticide applicator was on site, Miller said.  

Cattle Fever Tick spray box
Spray box  Courtesy/TAHC

The rebuke from the Texas agriculture industry, which stands to be decimated if the fever tick spreads from designated quarantine zones, was swift and loud. The Texas Farm Bureau said last week that Miller “has jeopardized the health of the Texas cattle herd and the viability of farmers and ranchers.” Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers called the decision “actually detrimental to cattle raisers who rely on the use of spray boxes to eradicate cattle fever ticks from their operations.”

Later that week, Miller said he tried to broker a deal with the Texas Animal Health Commission and the U.S. Department of Agriculture — the entities that oversee the operation of the spray boxes — but he was unable to round up the agencies for a scheduled meeting. On Wednesday, Miller poked at his regulatory counterparts, writing that “running and hiding isn’t the way we do business in Texas.”

But then on Thursday evening, Miller reversed course, announcing that he would reopen the spray boxes pursuant to a “compromise” that ostensibly would exempt calves and other vulnerable cattle from spray box treatment. That’s not a new concession — the Texas Animal Health Commission told the Observer on Friday that it has always allowed for such exemptions. What is new is that the agencies have agreed on a 45-day schedule to arrive at a more permanent fix to assuage concerned South Texas ranchers.    

Before these new developments, it appeared as if Miller had made a sound decision in the face of severe industry criticism. But in taking one step forward and one step back, Miller has now square danced all the way across the proverbial sawdust floor, traded partners, made a few intoxicating spins and ended up in the same spot where he started.

Perhaps he should just sit the next one out.   

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