There is before and there is after in the Canadian cattle industry.
Time has been neatly divided between the span before the BSE crisis and what came afterward.
Everyone in the industry remembers where they were at the seminal moment when they heard that Canada had a home-grown case of the disease.
“I was sitting in my John Deere tractor getting ready to kick it into gear and finish seeding,” said cow-calf producer Cam Ostercamp of Cayley, Alta.
“That was a holy shit moment for me. In 2003, the world came to an end on May 20th here.”
Dr. Stefanie Czub, a Canadian Food Inspection Agency researcher who confirmed the first case, has similar memories.
“For me, it was the year where everything happened,” she said.
“The very first thought coming to my mind when I sat behind my microscope at midnight on the May long weekend, my first thought was, ‘oh boy, the poor farmer.’ ”
Then Czub began a bout of radiation treatments for cancer, for months dividing her time between hospital and the CFIA lab.
Cattle producer Doug Price of Acme, Alta., remembers the price plunge.
“It was a year that it looked like we were going to be quite profitable in the feedlots, and then all of a sudden, bang. I remember (cattle prices) going right down to 38 cents (per pound). And a nickel on cows,” he said.
Cattle producer Neil Peacock of Sexsmith, Alta., has crystal clear memories of May 20, 2003.
“I remember it exactly. Actually, it was my official retirement day from the company I was working for,” he said.
“I was leaving that day, and I was going into full retirement. I was just going to show my cows and live off the proceeds of the cattle and take off my shoes and take ’er easy. And that all went away.”
The cow that began what is now 10 years of fallout from BSE was owned by Marwin Peaster of Peoria, Alta. The Mississippi-born farmer had bought the eight-year-old cow only a few months before it went down and was shipped to slaughter in January 2003.
It was months before the animal’s brain was tested and when BSE was confirmed, an all-out search began for the source and the cause.
The trail to the birthplace of the BSE cow led to the McCrea farm at Baldwinton, Sask. Trevor McCrea remembers it well, and unhappily.
“I was actually out seeding (when I heard.) … It wasn’t too much later that my uncle come got me out of the field, said that they suspected the animal had originated on our farm. I guess at that time, there was so much other stuff going on, it was hard to comprehend, with all the media attention and everything else. It was a shock.”
The McCreas’ 110 cow-calf pairs, 15 heifers and a dozen yearling bulls were all slaughtered by the CFIA as it traced and attempted to control fallout from the disease.
“Everything that was on the farm was gone, as far as livestock. It was a tough thing to see go,” he said.
“On the one hand you wanted to fight for them and on the other hand, people were telling us not to fight, that it would just cause a stink.”
McCrea continues to farm and has 75 cows. The family was compensated for the lost animals and decided for tax reasons to buy cattle the year after their herd was destroyed.
McCrea said he wasn’t particularly happy about that, given the sorry state of the cattle business at the time, with prices low and borders closed to exports.
“But the thing back then that probably irritated me most of all was that they were treating BSE as a contagious disease. There was no sense in getting in a big hurry. It wasn’t going to be spread anywhere. The animals weren’t contagious.”
CFIA investigators concluded the infected cow ate feed contaminated with meat and bone meal, the generally accepted source of prion infection. McCrea recalls providing supplement to calves to prevent coccidiosis with no inkling that it would have industry-shaking repercussions.
These days, he asks for a list of ingredients when buying new feed or using a new supplier.
McCrea said he worried at the time about how the cattle industry would perceive his family and was unprepared for the CFIA and media onslaught.
“It’s good now, when they find the odd case, that the farmer’s place that it’s on, that they don’t get hung out to dry and their name gets thrown to the media right away. With us, we had no choice. The media was almost down here before we knew it. The CFIA told them before they told us.”