Producers sacrificed herds to help save industry

No live test Several herds were slaughtered for trace out but no additional infected animals were found

Stan and Dorothy Walterhouse got out of the cow-calf business after the Canadian Food Inspection Agency eliminated about 200 of their cattle during the BSE crisis in 2003.


The couple from Tulliby Lake, Alta., had bought cattle from the McCrea farm in Saskatchewan, where the first BSE-infected animal was eventually traced. Now semi-retired and 75 years old, Walterhouse said he kept to grass-fed yearlings until this spring.


“This year we got silly and we calved out 50 first-calf heifers,” he said.


Like all those affected by the home-grown BSE case, he remembers the day clearly.


“They contacted us on (May) 19th at 10 o’clock at night,” he said.


“(A veterinarian) said, ‘did you ever have any black cows?’ and I said, ‘I had a pile of cows but not too many black ones.’ He said, ‘one with your brand on got a bad disease.’ ”


The next day, CFIA personnel arrived to go through records. The cattle were loaded and shipped to slaughter. None of them tested positive for BSE.


“We just took their word. We wanted to get it cleared up as quick as we could on account of the border, but it didn’t turn out that way.”


Looking back, Walterhouse said he’d like more proof that his animals had to be sacrificed. He had owned the problematic heifer for only seven months before he sold it again as a bred animal.


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Walterhouse thinks the cattle industry has not yet fully recovered from the events of 2003.


Neither does Wilhelm Vohs of Caroline, Alta., who had the fourth Canadian BSE case in one of his purebred Charolais cows in 2005. 


He and his wife, Sheri, reduced their herd after losing some of their animals to the trace-out process. Now they have about 60 head.


“I think this fall, they’re going, and I think maybe my wife and I might do a little bit of travelling. But I won’t sell the land.”


Vohs said Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human equivalent of BSE that can be contracted by eating BSE-infected meat, is a terrible affliction. But in hindsight he thinks the battle against BSE may have been overplayed.


Fears of a major CJD outbreak in the United Kingdom after a BSE crisis there did not materialize as more became known about its cause and feed regulations were implemented.


“I think BSE was a political issue,” said Vohs. 


“I think it was mainly an economics issue, getting access to markets again, more so than a human health issue, but again I want to stress I do not want to belittle” those who have died from CJD.


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Vohs said he now wishes he had thanked consumers for supporting the cattle industry during its toughest time.


“The Canadian people treated us beef farmers really, really well.”


He also said the CFIA treated him fairly and provided adequate compensation for his purebreds.


However, he still wonders at the attention given to BSE and its causes compared to that paid to human illnesses and causes of death. He remembers making the point with one of many television crews that visited his farm.


“I said to them two fellows, ‘when you guys (drive) home, bear in mind that your chances of dying are 66,000 times greater than dying from Creutzfeldt disease and I don’t think you boys are going to walk.’ After that, nobody asked me any more questions.”


Today, he worries about the future of the cattle industry in Canada. The domestic herd has shrunk, many producers left the business and there are fewer feedlots. Input costs have risen, wiping out most of the profits from today’s higher cattle prices. 


He also wonders if scientists have pinpointed the true causes of BSE, given only one infected animal is ever found in a herd, when theoretically all in the herd that ate the contaminated feed had equal exposure.


His own infected cow was injured by another cow, possibly sustaining a back injury and major stress.


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“Things kind of went downhill with her. She walked for a day or two but then she want down on me. It was one of my best producing Charolais cows.”