Trace out changes farm lives forever

Grim news | An Alberta dairy farm became the centre of attention after a cow tested positive for BSE

On Boxing Day 2003, the telephone rang in the home of Wayne and Shirley Forsberg on a farm near Calmar, Alta. Wayne took the call.

The news was grim.

A BSE-infected dairy cow in Washington state had been traced to their farm. That’s when their lives changed.

“It really changed the cattle industry in Canada, that BSE did,” said Shirley.

“Life changed forever there, for all cattle producers.”

The couple had sold their 111-head dairy herd in 2001, and eight of the cows went to a U.S. buyer. A six-year-old animal later tested positive.

The Forsbergs had comprehensive records that allowed a quick trace of the animal. Canadian Food Inspection Agency personnel took over their dining room table, checking records and confirming the animal’s identity through its registration papers that were confirmed by Holstein Canada.

“We still have all our records here yet. I guess one of these days I’ll have to get rid of them,” said Shirley.

Wayne died in January 2012, and she continues to live on the farm. But there are no longer cattle.

Forsberg said she and Wayne had seen the media attention paid to Marwin Peaster, who owned the first Canadian cow found to have BSE. They decided to hold a news conference, assisted by the National Farmers Union, to tell their story and limit the attention.

“We thought the only way was to be honest about it. But it’s still surprising, you run into people that remember the BSE and remember the kerfuffle that it caused and recognize us from it,” muses Forsberg.

“I’ve always felt that what is, is, and you have to deal with it. Trying to hide it would not have helped the beef industry either. It had to be dealt with.”

She said she and Wayne were amused by some of the media coverage at the time. One reporter took photos of an oat bin peppered with grasshoppers. A neighbour had stored his crop in one of their bins because he didn’t want to contaminate his clean oats with the crop full of hoppers.

Wayne had lost both hands and both feet to meningitis years before. Forsberg recalls his amusement after the news conference.

“Afterwards he said, ‘you know, I think the media was more interested in me pouring a glass of water with my hook than they were in what else was going on.’ ”

Forsberg said she and Wayne tried to keep their sense of humour, although there was nothing amusing about the situation. And the CFIA praised their meticulous records at the time as helping limit fallout from a U.S. case being traced to Canada.

“I can’t reflect enough … how this demonstrates, how this assists us in building international respect for our program, when we can get to that level of detail and that level of verification through identification preservation,” head CFIA veterinarian Brian Evans said in early 2004.

Forsberg said she felt the CFIA treated them well during the trace out. As for cause, most of the records pointed to a single batch of feed from a central Alberta feed mill.

Though the dairy herd was long gone, there was some overlap between it and the Forsbergs’ beef herd, so the animals were slaughtered and tested.

None of them had BSE.

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