Bovine big brother: Surveillance network gives cattle researchers priceless data

Network will yield insights into improving production and herd health — 
and reassure customers if there’s a sudden disease concern

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You can’t pick them out from the road, but 120 herds of cattle across the Prairies are special.

They’re participants in a “living laboratory” experiment that is advancing knowledge about the health of the western herd in a host of ways.

John Campbell
John Campbell photo: Supplied

“We have a mixture of small and large herds, somewhat representative of the number of different herds in the different areas of the provinces,” said project leader John Campbell, a vet and professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine.

There are numerous projects at his university and elsewhere where researchers need a representative sample of western Canadian cattle, and that’s where the Beef Cattle Surveillance Network comes in.

Now in its third year, the initiative enables researchers to learn more about the health of Canada’s cow-calf herd out in the field.

Researchers and technicians at the U of S, its counterpart at the University of Calgary, and at the Western Beef Development Centre take the herd data and analyze it, and also survey their owners three to four times a year on topics as wide ranging as productivity, calving, winter feeding, mineral management, antimicrobial use, and marketing.

This past year, local veterinarians collected about 20 blood and fecal samples from each herd during preg. checking.

“We’re in the process of testing those for a variety of things,” said Campbell. “We looked at trace mineral status of the cows, so we should have some good data on the different areas of Western Canada and trace mineral status.”

Connecting the dots

Since researchers have details of antimicrobial use from the surveys, they will be able to track both mineral challenges and the development of antimicrobial resistance on cattle farms.

That sort of information could be critical in two different ways.

The first is on the health front.

“We’ll know the prevalence of copper deficiency and how many cows are low in trace minerals,” said Campbell. “We’ll have the data put together this year, and we can look at geographic differences. We know a lot of the health issues that we deal with are associated with trace mineral status.”

As well, having this knowledge can be very useful in marketing efforts.

“Because we’re an export industry, there are often questions about the things Canadians do,” noted Campbell. “This gives us evidence to show what we’re actually doing and how we deal with it, whatever the case may be.”

And as the past has shown, disease issues can burst onto the scene in a heartbeat.

“You can imagine that in 2003, when BSE was first detected in Canada, it would have been nice to know what percentage of producers had meat and bone meal in their ration,” said Campbell. “There’s no easy way of knowing that, and it would be hard to get that information quickly. But right now, with a surveillance network, I could find that out in a matter of weeks. I could do a quick survey, send it out to our producers, and we could get answers fairly quickly.”

Many applications

Researchers have created a serum bank from the samples.

“If someone sees a new disease or problem in cow-calf herds and wants to see if it was around a few years ago, we can actually pull that blood out of the freezer and test for it. We can compare and sample them again in a couple of years.”

The blood will also be tested for Johne’s disease, the Neospora parasite, and other production-related diseases.

Since the researchers have been collecting data on calf losses and abortion rates and other production information every year, they will be able to figure out where they can make improvements.

“We can put some economics to that down the road,” said Campbell.

The program has opened doors for all kinds of research projects, he added.

“Most of the credit has to go to the producers and to the local vets who collect samples for us. Producers are giving us ideas for projects and what we should be looking at next. As we continue to roll out the surveys, we find we have too many topics to ask about. We can find out what’s going on in the industry and how people are dealing with these issues. We can get really good data that way.”

The network, which is funded by the Beef Cattle Research Council using Growing Forward dollars, follows the model of the U.S. National Animal Health Monitoring Service.

About the author


Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."



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