‘I was sick for the industry:’ Alberta ranchers worry about what happens next after one cow was diagnosed with tuberculosis
BROOKS, Alta. — Sleepless nights and worry: that’s what about 50 ranchers in southeastern Alberta are experiencing as their cattle herds remain in quarantine.
One cow that grazed in a community pasture near Jenner and Suffield was diagnosed with tuberculosis in mid-September after being shipped to the United States.
The cow belonged to Brad Osadczuk, a rancher, Alberta Beef Producers director and participant in verified beef and sustainability programs.
From a herd of 1,200 that he owns with his father, 385 cows and 50 bulls are slated for slaughter. They shared pasture with the cow identified with TB and have all been tested for the disease. Results weren’t known as of Oct. 30.
“She had the start of a cancer eye,” Osadczuk said about the five-year-old cow that he sold, which is the only one confirmed with TB.
“Fifty percent of the people out there would probably have said, ‘oh, she’ll be good for another year. And she would have, but I’m pretty hard on my cattle herd, so we sorted off.”
The cow and several others were shipped “to just kind of get ahead of that seasonal decline in slaughter cow prices. And 27 days later, I got the phone call. And it was a bad one. I was sick for the industry,” he said, recalling the havoc created by BSE back in 2003.
“I just thought, ‘we can’t do this again.’ I didn’t know what the implications would be. TB, it’s just a word we use.”
All the cattle in that community pasture and in the nearby Buffalo-Atlee and Suffield community pastures, are under quarantine while the Canadian Food Inspection Agency tests the animals and completes an investigation aimed at eradicating the disease.
Any that show evidence of exposure to TB via blood and caudal fold tests will be destroyed. Control measures might also extend to other animals on ranches where positive cases are found.
The CFIA compensates ranchers for the value of animals killed, but that is only part of the fallout.
“It’s the uncertainty that’s hurting most people,” said Kevin Stopanski, whose 160 cow-calf pairs are in quarantine.
“The sleepless nights, the wondering, is your dog that sleeps at the foot of the bed, is he going to be next to be slaughtered?”
He and his wife, Carmen, learned of the TB case four weeks ago, as did other patrons of the community pastures. At that point, it was scary to imagine where it could lead.
“We were sitting at the kitchen table. You think the worst. You think, what’s going to happen? Protocol is, if you’ve got a positive, your cats, dogs, horses, everything are all condemned to be slaughtered.
“That’s the worst scenario that you always think of. And then you get frustrated. And then you blame other people. The ‘why me?’ thing.”
However, Stopanski said those feelings were short-lived. Now it’s a matter of working with ranching neighbours to find a way through.
Finances top the list.
“There is a lot of money being tied up right now through cattle. There’s a lot of loans banks are holding onto right now,” he said.
“I can’t estimate, but millions of dollars are being tied up right now through non-cattle sales and bank loans and all that stuff, so that’s a tough thing to handle.”
Alberta Beef Producers has asked the government to provide financial assistance to ranchers affected by the quarantine. Chair Bob Lowe said the CFIA has no mechanism to do that, but the Agri-Recovery program has potential, and ABP has asked Alberta Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier to request that it be triggered.
Other options are also sought.
Some ranchers outside the quarantine are considering donations of feed to those who need it.
Many of the ranchers affected sell their calves each fall and do not have facilities or feed to manage cattle while testing is completed. It isn’t yet known how many animals will be tested or how long it will take.
Lowe said that’s why obtaining financial help is job one for the ABP.
Osadczuk said the testing is taking too long and should be expedited for the sake of all those affected.
“I’m through all the rough stuff. I’m ready to tackle this and the writing is on the wall,” he said.
“They could kill some, all or whatever of my cows, but my neighbours are three weeks behind me and it’s killing them. These are all 100-year-old ranches in this country and to have somebody come in and tell you what you’re doing with your cows, it doesn’t go over real well.”
However, neither Osadczuk nor any speakers at recent ABP zone meetings have questioned the need for quarantine and testing. Canada has a goal of eliminating TB to protect its reputation for herd health and its markets, and it has been largely successful. Cases of the illness are rare.
“I don’t want to bash the CFIA too much because they’ve got a job to do, too, and I do respect the fact that all this is in the name of protecting our industry, our people, our consumers and our trading partners. So saying that, I do believe in the system.”
One case of TB does not affect the larger industry, although Canada could lose its TB-free status if it were discovered elsewhere.
“There is no trade issue,” said Lowe.
“As far as the cattle industry in Canada, (a TB case) is not an issue, but as far as the producers involved in it, it’s cataclysmic.”
ABP has asked the federal agriculture minister to speed up the testing process undertaken by the CFIA, through more people administering tests and more lab capacity analyzing the results.
“Testing is going way too slow, in my opinion,” said Stopanski.
”I don’t think they (the CFIA) were prepared. The original herd … was in about 30,000 acres. That’s what that herd was grazing on, in two different pastures. They just couldn’t fathom how big that was.”
Once cattle are in quarantine, the only way out is to have them tested and found TB-free. That releases both cows and calves because calves can’t be reliably tested until they’re at least one year old.
“That’s what we’re aiming for right now,” Stopanski said.
“Getting our cows home as quickly and humanely as possible and then go from there. Just put me on a list. Let’s get this done.”
Keith Ritz, who has 400 head in quarantine, said he worries about older members who don’t have the facilities, finances or physical ability to feed cattle through winter, if that becomes necessary.
And he fears it will.
“What do you do with all those calves and how do you operate?” he asked.
“Guys with contracts, will those calves still be taken? If this drags into the new year, do they lose their contracts? And who pays the difference? It’s not a rosy picture.”
Stopanski wonders if affected ranchers will have to keep testing their herds for years to come in order to regain and retain buyers’ confidence in the health of their animals.
“In the back of my mind, I have to prepare for that.”
But where did the disease come from? Many fingers are pointing to the large elk herd at Canadian Forces Base Suffield, estimated at 8,000 animals.
Wildlife have been known to carry TB and spread it to cattle, and vice versa.
Osadczuk is among area ranchers who have lobbied government in the past to control the elk herd. In 2014, he was part of a delegation in Edmonton that met with then Environment Minister Kyle Fawcett.
“I told him almost two years ago exactly, right now, that if we didn’t get a handle on this elk herd, that we were going to be dealing with brucellosis or TB or something. And here we are.”
Those at an Oct. 27 ABP meeting in Brooks asked if elk would be tested as part of the CFIA investigation. Lowe said that remains to be seen.
“There’s no point looking for blame anywhere. We’ve got to get rid of it,” he said.
“Let’s do the cows first because that’s the economic importance. As far as trying to figure out did the elk take it to the cows or the cows take it to the elk or do the elk even have it, is completely irrelevant. Let’s get rid of the disease.”
The fallout ranges from massive financial worries to the simple social aspects of life in the community.
Stopanski, a 4-H leader, said some members of the Jenner 4-H Beef Club have their family’s herds in quarantine. That means no weigh-in and no obvious way to participate in the club this year.
“4-H is really strongly supported in our community. We’re just hoping to keep that club going,” he said.
“This thing affects everybody.”