Resilient farm family weathers many storms

The Sweetnams faced three major disease outbreaks while farming in Ireland as well as a dairy barn fire in Canada

GATINEAU, Que. — How much stress can one farming family endure? Dairy farmers Miriam and Harold Sweetnam seem to represent the test.

While dairy farming in Ireland, Harold’s herd experienced the brucellosis outbreak in 1971-73, spread through water contamination and wildlife, and lost 150 animals. Then came bovine tuberculosis in 1974-77, again spread by wildlife and in this case badgers, when 212 animals were lost over 36 months through compulsory culling.

Three years after the Sweetnams married in 1990, the BSE discovery and massive herd culling in Europe began.

Destruction of their herd, which occurred over several weeks, was a painful experience that still haunts. There are no photos of the event, said Sweetnam: “The mental images will be enough for the rest of our lives.”

The financial burden and mental and emotional stressors of that led them to emigrate, with their two children, to a farm near La Broquerie, Man., in 2000 to start a new life and a new two-site dairy operation.

In 2006, one of the barns burned down. Six animals died and the dairy heifers aborted their calves from the stress.

But the Sweetnams survive. They continue to milk 320 cows at Sweetridge Farm near Winkler, Man., where Miriam serves on the executive of Dairy Farmers of Manitoba and on a national committee for proAction, a consumer assurance program with Dairy Farmers of Canada.

It was her experiences with animal disease outbreaks that drew her to speak at the National Farmed Animal Health and Welfare Council Forum on Nov. 27.

“I feel I am an oddity, a rare breed — somebody that experienced BSE, who is a Canadian and an active dairy producer,” said Sweetnam.

Her speech made it clear that the trauma of BSE remains a vivid and painful memory.

“We noticed some animals going funny and we got the vet out, and he did not want to tell us because we had just moved to that farm,” she recounted. While feeding one day, she noticed one cow scratching frantically on a post. Then the cow turned and ran right over her on its way to the pasture.

“There was something really wrong, so we made the call. We didn’t want the guilt. That was the end of it.”

The cow was slaughtered and tested. After a three-week wait for results, the dreaded diagnosis was confirmed and one week after that came a death sentence for the rest of the herd.

“The slaughter was arranged. So we had that seven-week period in there where you really had to detach yourselves from the animals that were on your yard,” said Sweetnam.

“This is not part of who you are as a farmer, to be (putting) them into a trailer. The young calves, do you feed them? Well yes, you do, and then you push them into trailers where you know they’re going to go to slaughter about an hour away. And you repeat the process 296 times.”

The herd genetics, carefully purchased and nurtured over years, disappeared with the breeding herd and with the 52 in-calf heifers. The cows were milked daily but one day the milk truck came for the last time.

“When you had them loaded, it was November, and you had to watch the trucks go down the yard. … When animals are not comfortable they are probably bawling. So they were bawling going down the avenue.”

Sweetnam had to pause after recounting the way the cows would often moo in response to the on-farm sound of a spring-loaded gate striking a post, signifying someone was coming to supply feed or do the milking.

“After they were all gone — and even the dog disappeared the day that the animals went — I went out to the yard and the gate banged and there was no sound. All you could hear was the wind in the trees.”

Adapting to life without a milking schedule was hard for her husband, said Sweetnam. A teacher, she had continued working in town to help keep the farm afloat.

“So then you have a choice. Is our glass half full or is it half empty?”

Gradually, they rebuilt the herd, starting with a Canadian heifer named Lulu. They borrowed money and carefully chose genetics.

They had success at cattle shows but because dairy quota was tied to land in Ireland, they could not expand and were worried about providing opportunities for their children, Mark and Tara.

Canada was their choice. Despite the 2006 barn fire and delays in expansion due to Manitoba’s manure-spreading restrictions, the dairy farm continues.

But the family’s experience with devastating livestock disease has lessons for today, Sweetnam said.

“The diseases we encounter in Canada, they don’t originate here but how we react to them is Canada-made.”

She urged regulators to compensate farmers for the full replacement cost of the herd if it is slaughtered, and reimburse for pedigreed animals at pedigreed prices. As well, farmers in such situations should be compensated for lost income from the time of diagnosis to the time they are able to regain operations.

And one more thing: “Don’t expect a farmer to turn around and euthanize or shoot or whatever, any animals that they have on their yard,” Sweetnam urged.

“That is just not fair. You have fed them, bred them, tagged them, milked them, brought them to a show, and then you’re to turn around to kill them, that’s — no.”

She reminded those at the forum not to treat farmers like criminals if the worst happens and their herd is diagnosed with a reportable disease.

“For the regulators in the room, I would ask that you revisit these and just ask yourselves, what are the consequences for farmers?”

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