Life under Quarantine

By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer


As the bovine TB quarantine continues on nearly 40 ranches in southeast Alberta and Saskatchewan, the long-term consequences are becoming clear for one ranch family near Patricia.

The Henry family has farmed for three generations in the area, and they have recently heard their 600 cattle will have to be slaughtered. That is the immediate consequence, but the future of their cattle operation is also greatly shrouded, with perhaps no relief in sight for the next three years. Janet Henry says her family has gone well beyond disbelief or shock at this point. The have become numb thinking about the consequences.

“It was our best calf cop ever, and they were pre-sold,” remembers Henry thinking back to the beginning of October when her family had no inkling of the approaching disaster. “We were looking forward to getting them in, and getting them on the truck… There wasn’t a lot of lead up to it. We were ranching right along after 35 years of building the herd we have here. We got the phone call on October 14. They asked, ‘You had cattle in Queenstown Grazing, up in the Block? Your quarantined.’ That was the first we had heard of the bovine TB outbreak. You are initially worried about your calves, and you had no idea it was going to get as bad as this.”

Henry says after the initial shock wore off, they were determined to put their best foot forward and just get on with the testing and get it over with as soon as possible. The only problem was, the government doesn’t work that way. Testing did not take place until Nov. 15, a full month after the quarantine was imposed.

“As it goes on, you are waiting and waiting patiently for them to phone when they are going to come and test. In the mean time, you start preparing your place for it because that is not how you have generally done things. Now we got all these calves coming home. Usually (by now) the steers are gone. You need pens for all of them, and you need pens for (the CFIA) to come through and do the testing. And not only do you have to run them through once, but you have them all back to run though again three days later to read the tests.”

When the CFIA’s testers eventually did come and administer their Caudal-Fold test, the Henrys were informed in a healthy herd they could expect a three to five per cent reactor rate; so the science was, at best, indeterminate. Slaughter and dissection is the only absolute way to conclude a positive test for TB, and this must be reinforced by a tissue culture test which takes 13 weeks to complete.

The Henry’s ended up with 10 reactors. Far below the normal expected reactor average. The family had to quickly come to terms with the fact 10 probably healthy cows would be sent off for slaughter in Lacombe. But if it moved the process along… Janet thought they might actually be beginning to see daylight. She was wrong.

“They don’t know it’s a case of positive bovine tuberculosis until they take those 10 reactors to their test facility in Lacombe. So you have your 10 reactors, and you say fine. You gotta do what you gotta do to deal with that. You need to get the tests back, but the plant is bottlenecked up there. They can’t keep up with the reactors now. They didn’t expect this many animals, right? So nobody knows what’s going on.”

Meanwhile there is a whole other dimension to the situation playing out in the public realm.

“You have all these ranchers who have been quarantined,” explains Janet. “Everybody’s scared. Nobody knows what’s going on. You are starting to get media involved. Social media is going rampant with all kinds of misunderstandings… You start to wonder: Alright, we are sitting on all of these extra animals on our quarantined land. So what happens next spring when we have our full year’s calf crop, and the new calves are being born? It looks like our tissue samples won’t be cultured until April, and that’s when we will have our results. Well, we’ll be calving by then.”

And then the numbing blow landed on November 18. Janet recalls the conversation.

“We phoned in to the CFIA’s head vet to see if we could find some information out about when they are going to get these reactors, because the sooner they can come and get them up there, the sooner we can move this forward. But when we talked to him, we were told over the weekend things have taken a turn. He couldn’t tell us, but he said things don’t look good and you’ll be getting another call later today. We got that other call, and it was your whole herd is going to be destroyed.”

The CFIA’s “Declaration of an Infected Place” came down on December 1. The whole future of their three generation enterprise was suddenly in doubt.

“They are killing 10,000 head,” says Janet. “There is not 10,000 head of bred cows available in this province, or in Canada, to replace them. And you know what? Those cows weren’t for sale; they were our herd. How are you going to put a price on that? But now we have to talk about compensation.”

What’s an even crueler twist on the whole affair to Janet is the shaken hopes of her two children.

“Our kids have had their own little herd within our herd right from the time they were young. Now they are taking all their cows too, and they are heartbroken. This week, we can say, you know what? This is a hard hit. It’s brutal. Now, I am thinking, how am I going to be there to put the cows in the truck? I don’t know if I will be able to handle that day. But there have been so many days that have floored you as is, we are already looking ahead and saying we can do this. We can start over.”

But even after the slaughter is over, and the Henry herd completely destroyed, the ordeal does not end. It could take up to 18 more months to have their property officially declared safe.

“We know they are killing our cows, but what we don’t know now is when they will lift the quarantine on our property. They assess your ground. We don’t know if we can go and buy yearlings to run on this land this summer coming up. We don’t know if we can even put up hay to sell. We don’t know if they are coming for the dogs and cats too.”

Since we interviewed Janet on December 2, the CFIA has come and finally picked up the Henry’s reactors. The family is waiting to hear the results on the carcass inspection. Officials have come out and began to talk compensation details with the Henrys, and to go over their cattle’s movement history the past five years. Frustrations are rising.

“No one is any smarter,” says Janet by email on December 13 just prior to Ag-Matters print time. “They’ve just used up a lot more red tape, and they haven’t found anything else in the cattle they’ve killed.”