The first thing the Canadian Animal Health Coalition did after receiving a grant to better prepare for animal disease emergencies was to see if producer organizations had a crisis plan.
The results weren’t encouraging.
“We surveyed 130 organizations, all industry associations at different national and provincial levels across the country,” said Matt Taylor, one of the coalition’s project officials. “And we had a 50 per cent response rate, which for an email-based survey, is pretty good. Of that, we heard that only 28 per cent of our livestock industry respondents had a plan of any kind.”
But averages can be deceiving. In this case, every poultry group had a plan but other sectors had little or nothing.
“The poultry industries had multiple bouts of highly controlled disease emergencies — and the livestock industry really hasn’t had any,” he said. “We heard that there was almost no plans or tools for producers in the livestock industry, but almost everyone on the poultry side. Clearly there was room to improve.”
But help is now available — a detailed handbook that producers can use to understand the threats they could face in an emergency; how to prepare for one; and how to respond if their operation suffers a disease outbreak.
Sector-specific handbooks have been created for 15 livestock associations across the country — including Alberta Pork, Alberta Milk, and Alberta Beef.
The coalition used an approach pioneered by the Alberta Cattle Feeders Association, which developed a plan for its organization’s staff and a producers’ handbook.
Using the plan
The handbooks are available at the organizations’ websites, and this summer the coalition will be working with them to ensure producers are aware of the tool, understand what their role is, and how to use the handbooks.
The latter is a challenge. For example, Alberta Beef’s handbook is 90 pages long.
“I know that’s way too big for a producer,” said Taylor. “Over the next five years, we’ll be working again with Alberta Pork, Alberta Beef, and Alberta Milk and we’re going to give them tools to make producers understand the book is there; if and when they need it; and maybe even assisting them with the preparations component.”
The association worked with Alberta Beef Producers to create a small brochure that explains how to use the handbook.
While diseases such as foot-and-mouth, BSE, and bovine TB are well known, there are others such as — Rift Valley fever and bluetongue — “that have the potential to cripple the industry indefinitely,” notes the beef booklet. Other threats include a zoonosis outbreak (a disease affecting both humans and animals); feed or water contamination; or a new emerging disease that could impact markets or potentially result in a border closure.
The booklet uses a theoretical case of a suspected foot-and-mouth outbreak at a cow-calf farm in southern Alberta, detailing how authorities would respond and how it would affect other livestock operations in both the immediate and surrounding areas. This is followed by a quiz that poses questions such as what a Voluntarily Cease Movement involves and what a producer must do if there is a mass vaccination directive.
It also has hands-on tools — such as an example of a ‘farm plan grid’ (a map of the yard showing the location of things such as the gas shutoff, first aid station, and a meeting place) and a biosecurity assessment guide for visitors.
The bottom line is that all livestock producers need to plan for a disease-related emergency because if one ever hits, they’ll need to start implementing their plan immediately, said Taylor
“In a sense, it’s like teaching our kids to swim,” he said. “Maybe we’re living in the middle of the prairie and there aren’t a lot of lakes and rivers nearby. But if they need to, they will know how to swim.
“Those disease epidemics may go by us every time, but if one of them ever does touch us, this is the stuff we need if we’re ever going to get through it.”
The effort, funded by an $800,000 Growing Forward grant, has already paid dividends, he said.
“Throughout the course of the project, we’ve bumped it up to 46 per cent of groups that have a plan,” said Taylor. “That’s a significant accomplishment, and the industry is already in a better position.”
The group will be working with 15 more organizations and those that have plans have been doing training exercises with their staff, he said.