TB puts halt on cattle sales; ranchers need funding help

There, but for the grace of God, go I. That’s what many cattle producers in Western Canada may be thinking as they watch a scant few among them, about 30 ranchers, persevere under the restrictions of a quarantine.

One cow from a southeastern Alberta ranch was found with bovine tuberculosis. To maintain the country’s TB-free status, other cattle are being destroyed and ranches are prohibited from selling animals until a Canadian Food Inspection Agency investigation directs them otherwise.

The rancher who owned the infected cow was afraid he would be crucified — his word — when the repercussions became apparent to his neighbours and the rest of the cattle industry.

Instead, they have rallied around and sought help for him and others affected. We add our voice to theirs.

One case of TB is minor in Canada’s cattle industry. Unlike the disaster of BSE’s discovery in 2003, it presents no trade implications or human health concerns.

However, for those who cannot sell their cattle to pay their bills, help is needed. In some cases, producers lack the facilities, feed and water to manage calves they would ordinarily sell this fall, and testing is expected to take months.

For those with herds in quarantine or that may be placed in quarantine as the investigation proceeds, this case is a disaster affecting their livelihoods and potentially their future in the business.

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Alberta Beef Producers has asked Alberta Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier to help secure federal AgriRecovery funding for ranchers whose herds are in quarantine.

In the meantime, the province says help is available from programs such as advance payments, feeder association loan guarantees and flexible loan options through the Agriculture Financial Services Corp.

If these options do not serve the purpose, others must be found.

The CFIA has a protocol to eliminate TB, and although the slaughter of healthy animals is part of it, no one has voiced objections, at least publicly, over the methods deemed necessary to maintain the country’s record of herd health.

There is, however, one big question: what role did the wild elk herd play?

Elk can carry TB, and although the original 250 animals placed on Canadian Forces Base Suffield were free of the disease, uncontrolled herd expansion renders that status moot.

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It is unlikely that the original source of one cow’s TB infection will ever be found, in elk or anywhere else, but ranchers in the region — most of those now in quarantine, in fact — have complained about the herd for years.

Those 8,000 elk eat a lot of grass and forage, some of it designated for cattle. They also destroy fences and feed stores, present a hazard on roads and affect the sensitive and water-scant grasslands of the region.

Regardless of whether any of these elk have TB or transmitted it, recent events must rouse the province to reduce the size of the herd.

Increased hunting won’t be enough, and other solutions may not be pretty.

Watching ranchers’ livelihoods destroyed isn’t pretty, either.

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Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod, D’Arce McMillan and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.