Researchers join forces to dig deep into state of Prairie cow herd

The five-year project has researchers collecting hard data on topics 
such as antibiotic use, trace minerals, and Johne’s disease


Cattle in Western Canada tend to be deficient in copper, have a low incidence of Johne’s disease, and cow-calf producers don’t use antibiotics excessively.

Those are three of the findings from the cattle health network, a five-year project begun in 2012, and based on the National Animal Health Monitoring System in the U.S.

John Campbell

John Campbell

“This year is a sampling year,” said John Campbell, primary investigator and department head at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine. “When people preg check these herds, we will get local vets to collect some biological samples for us — blood and fecal samples.”

The network of researchers has enlisted 100 cow-calf producers from Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, surveying them on a wide variety of topics two or three times each year. Every second year, local veterinarians work with producers to collect a variety of samples, many of which are now housed in a biobank at the University of Saskatchewan.

“We’ll have those in storage, so that if a researcher wants to go back and look at the samples in the future, they’ll have that capacity,” said Campbell.

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This work will benefit the industry in the long run, he said, noting for example that very little work had been done on antimicrobial use at the cow-calf level.

“It’s good information for policy-makers and for the industry since people are concerned about antimicrobial resistance,” said Campbell.

Johne’s, a condition caused by bacteria that results in chronic diarrhea in dairy and beef cattle, is low in beef herds. Only about 1.5 per cent of cows were found to test positive for antibodies to the bacteria, and about 5.4 per cent of herds contained two positive cows.

These numbers support what researchers have long suspected, said Campbell.

“It might be a little higher than in previous years, which might not be surprising as herds have amalgamated and got bigger. But the prevalence is still fairly low,” he said.

“It’s good information. It’s something that producers should know — when they are buying breeding stock, they should be buying from a herd that is negative or trying to control the disease in some fashion. It is a very difficult disease to get rid of once you have it, partly because our diagnostic tests are not very good.”

Researchers also conducted one of the first studies looking at trace minerals in a wide range of geographical areas.

Twenty cows were sampled from every herd in the study, and producers were asked questions about their mineral supplementation. Researchers found significant copper deficiencies across Western Canada. About 75 per cent of the cows sampled had less than adequate copper levels and 43 per cent were deficient. As well, 21 per cent of cattle had low selenium levels, and 27 per cent had low vitamin E levels. Both minerals are important for calf health.

These findings bring up questions about copper supplementation. Researchers are trying to study the connection between soil types and trace minerals.

“It looked like selenium was especially bad in northwest Alberta and I’m not sure that the soil type would even explain that. This must be management,” said Campbell. “What’s interesting is that many of these herds are not having production problems and they’re still copper deficient. We’re still working our way through some of that data.”

Other work that hasn’t been completed yet examines pain management in cow-calf herds. Researchers are also collecting information on neospora, a parasite spread by canines that can cause abortion in cattle.

“We’ve had good buy-in from producers,” said Campbell. “We’ve lost a few herds along the way. The goal was to have about 120, but we’re now about 105. We’re looking to recruit a few more herds for the last two years (of the study).”

About the author

Reporter

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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