EDMONTON – It took only a single cow with bovine spongiform encephalopathy to turn Canada’s livestock industry into chaos.
The border to the United States, Canada’s largest trading partner, remained closed as of May 26 to live cattle and beef. Slaughter at packing plants was cut in half, fat cattle destined for slaughter were backed up in feedlots, truckers parked their rigs and farmers were changing seeding plans.
“The impact on the economy generally, needless to say, is serious. When we can’t export our beef to the U.S. and a multitude of other countries, it goes without saying the economic impact is very serious indeed,” said Alberta premier Ralph Klein after a special cabinet meeting to discuss the May 20 discovery of BSE in a northern Alberta cow.
Less than a week after the confirmation, almost 2,000 cattle on 17 farms in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan were in quarantine.
On one of those farms, near Barrhead, Alta., Walter Schmidt said his first clue of a problem was when federal inspectors came to his farm on the Victoria Day holiday.
Officials from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency were looking for 211 calves bought from the farm where the first BSE case had been discovered.
“We did not need this in the industry,” said Schmidt.
“It’s a big, big hit to the feedlot industry in the short term.”
Preliminary results from a rapid test for BSE on all 192 animals from Marwyn Peaster’s herd in Wanham, Alta., where the original BSE-infected cow was found, came back negative May 25. But the search continues for how the animal contracted the disease.
Last weekend, 180 more animals from three other Alberta farms traced out of the original herd were also sent for slaughter and testing.
Ted Haney, president of the Canada Beef Export Federation, estimated each day the American border is closed costs Canadian producers $11 million in lost sales.
“This has a big impact,” said Haney, who estimated the spin-off damage in lost jobs and an economic slowdown is closer to $45 million a day.
“There’s a lot of pain short term.”
In 2002, Canada exported 1.6 million head of live cattle and 373,000 tonnes of beef to the U.S., worth more than $3.5 billion a year.
The border closing comes just as many feedlot operators were posting their first profitable three months after two years of losses.
“This is not an industry that is going into this on solid, strong financial legs,” said Haney.
Kent Olson, president of the Alberta Cattle Feeders Association, said the hurt in the feedlots is real.
“If the borders stay shut, then we’ve got a real major problem. We have more cattle on feed than we have demand for,” said Olson, a feedlot operator outside Red Deer.
“Anything longer than a week in our industry and we’re in a world of hurt.”
Dennis Laycraft, executive vice-president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, also stressed the need for the border to open quickly.
“If it goes the whole summer, Canadians are going to be able to buy a lot of steaks, at a very good price.”
Right now there are about 900,000 head of cattle in Canadian feedlots. Each week about 60,000 cattle are slaughtered in Canadian plants. Slaughter has slowed to about half, said Haney. Packers are only slaughtering enough to fill existing markets.
CFIA officials have warned there’s no end in sight yet.
Claude Lavigne, associate director of the animal products director at the CFIA, told reporters there are many unanswered questions.
“Our epidemiology team, they’re cooped up in a room with walls pasted with paper, pieces of information from all kinds of investigators, and trying to make sense of this.”
The news of mad cow disease hit like a bomb dropped in the cattle
“It’s mind boggling,” said Ben Thorlakson, one of Alberta’s largest feedlot operators and chair of the Canada Beef Export Federation.
“We just don’t have the obvious risk factors,” said Thorlakson.
Since May 16, when the Alberta government got official confirmation of BSE, CFIA officials have been searching for the source.
Because the incubation period of the disease is three to eight years, CFIA investigators are focusing their investigation in three areas: the original animal’s herd mates, its offspring and parents, and the rendering system.
By tracking the animal’s history, they can find the source of infection.
Either it was given infected feed or the animal came into Canada infected. There may also be rare cases in which BSE occurs spontaneously.
For investigators the mystery remains: How did an animal get BSE in a country that is BSE-free?
“We don’t know where it came from. That’s the big thing,” said Lavigne.