Living laboratory tracks disease, production issues

A new monitoring system is providing scientists and veterinarians with information on production and animal health issues and priorities across western Canada’s cow-calf industry.  It’s a network of cattle producers from various parts of the prairie provinces who have agreed to complete detailed surveys about their cow herds about three times a year, and provide biological samples every two years.

The monitoring system was designed and put in place a little over two years ago by Dr John Campbell of the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon. It matches USDA’s animal health monitoring system, but only covers cattle.

The main part of the project is based on answers to questionnaires sent to the cattlemen about three times a year. Every other year, local vets take biological samples – last year it was blood and fecal samples – from 20 cows in each herd. Because of the wide range of topics that have been or could be researched from information and samples his team has collected, Campbell calls the program a living laboratory.

Campbell’s team collects the biological samples, processes them if necessary and freezes them as several smaller samples. They also work with specialists on questionnaires about herd productivity, health issues or other topics researchers need information on.

Campbell launched his project two years ago and now has about 110 producers with over 100 cows in the network. He’d like to boost that number to about 120. Small (under 300 cows) and large (over 300 cows) herds in each of four regions in Alberta, four in Saskatchewan and three in Manitoba – are included as representing Canada’s beef industry.

This project will be ongoing and will largely replace single-issue surveys that have been used as part of other research projects. It will avoid separate recruitment efforts for every project that has happened in the past.

“Many of the cattlemen we recruited are people we’ve worked with on other projects,” says Campbell. “And we got more through local vets. We may be getting more progressive producers, especially those who work with their vet quite a bit. But, those are probably the only people who want to answer all the questions we ask – it takes some time to do that. And, taking blood and other samples from some of the cows takes extra time at preg checking or other vet visit.”  

So far, the survey questions have been about productivity, animal welfare, mineral feeding, marketing. Last year, local vets took blood and fecal samples from about 20 cows in each herd. They also collected samples from bulls.

The aim is to develop an understanding of the levels of various diseases and health issues in beef cattle herds in western Canada. Also, if specialists need to know whether a health issue might be a problem in western Canada, they won’t need to recruit cooperators from scratch. They may even be able to use information or samples that have already been collected. Scientists can use samples or surveys to investigate almost any question of health or management of cattle in Canada.

So far, samples in the survey’s freezers have been used to look at the level of Johne’s disease in beef herds.

“Fortunately, we found only a few samples, under one percent, that were positive for Johne’s,” says Campbell. “It’s much more common in dairy herds, so we’re happy to know it’s not common in cow-calf herds. It is something to be aware of though, it can be devastating where it is present.”

The survey and a sample set have been used to look at vitamin and mineral nutrition. Preliminary results show levels of copper, manganese and molybdenum considered not adequate in at least some cows of all herds tested. Some animals in every herd tested showed low levels of copper, manganese and molybdenum with copper deficiency most common.  In many herds, fewer than half the cows had adequate levels. Selenium was more varied. It was adequate in all cows in about half the herds and in 0% to 95% of cows in others, with lowest levels in one region. Part of the problem, according to Campbell, is that there are always some cows that do not consume enough mineral, no matter how it’s fed.

Another project is using fecal samples and information from a survey question about use of antimicrobials to look at development of antibiotic resistance in beef cattle microbes.

One survey questionnaire from last year focused on marketing practices. Data from that survey will help extension and other staff target information to what producers find useful. Another survey focused on animal welfare – timing and methods of procedures like castration and dehorning as well as use of pain control products. Some of that information will provide groups like CCA with a reliable picture of what is really happening in cow-calf production.

A project that is still running is testing samples from bulls for vibriosis and trichomoniasis, sexually transmitted diseases that cause low conception rates, abortions and late calving. It’s not been completed yet.

Results from each survey participant’s own herd are returned to them, along with anonymous information on all herds in the survey. It’s useful information, but it takes many months or even longer for Campbell’s team to collect all the data or samples, process the samples, enter the data and then analyze everything.

“Finding a lab that can process all our samples can be a challenge,” says Campbell. “They’re generally set up to test relatively small numbers of samples. We have thousands, especially when we tested for vibrio and trich – we tested samples from up to 20 bulls from each of our herds. Even processing our biological samples, splitting them into smaller amounts, labeling and cataloging everything into the bio-bank can be a logistical challenge for our small staff.”

The monitoring network won’t provide an early warning if a new disease is found. The work involved in extracting useful information from it is too slow, says Campbell. But it would likely be helpful in recruiting herds for testing. If a new diagnostic test comes along, samples in the biobank could help in assessing whether it’s useful or provides new information about the health status of western Canada’s cow herd.”

The surveillance project is a big one and quite costly – it took over a million dollars, but CCA, Alberta Beef Producers and Saskatchewan Agriculture and AAFC are supporting it.

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