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TB fight hard on Riding Mountain ranchers

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It has been 10 long years since cattle producers in the communities surrounding Riding Mountain National Park learned they were "special" in the eyes of tuberculosis-eradication experts.

Manitoba's cattle herd has been considered free of bovine tuberculosis since 1985, but that designation came under scrutiny in the late 1990s after small pockets of TB were found in wildlife and the area's cattle herds.

In 2003, the TB-free status of all Manitoba's cattle was threatened, so officials moved to identify a smaller zone, dubbed the Riding Mountain Eradication Area (RMEA) and embarked on an aggressive campaign to wipe out the disease.

The RMEA spared most Manitoba cattle producers costly testing before they could export, but it was a hellish turn of events for the area's producers, who are required by law to co-operate with Canadian Food Inspection Agency veterinarians coming in to test their herds.

During the past decade, some 2,600 herds of cattle and bison were tested, more than 220,000 animals in all. Among those, 14 herds were found with TB-positive animals, the last of which was identified in 2008.

Testing involves rounding up the herd, running the animals through a chute, injecting them with purified dead TB bacteria and checking the injection site after 72 hours for swelling, which indicates a positive reaction.

Sounds simple, but mustering cow-calf herds is a stressful and costly exercise. Some put the cost at about $18 per head each time. Producers received one-third of that in compensation.

Abortion losses and accidental deaths due to injury are not uncommon during these roundups, not to mention the stress on the owners. There was no compensation for that. If a positive reactor was found in the herd, the farm was quarantined. If TB was confirmed, all animals, even family pets, were destroyed. Although producers were compensated, it rarely covered the cost of replacing the animals.

Some farmers, pushed to the breaking point, tried refusing to go along with all this. They were hauled into court and fined. The law on this point is clear, and it's not on the side of individual producers.

To add to their frustration, they argued TB existed in the area through no fault of their own. Producers suspected -- and those suspicions were later confirmed -- that their cattle were becoming infected by mingling with wildlife leaving the park to mooch off their haystacks.

Limiting that intermingling means they must install barriers, and they can't use money-saving strategies such as winter grazing and bale grazing that are now the norm in other parts of the province. It's an added cost in a slim-margin business, and there is no payback.

Park officials reluctantly admitted the resident elk population was part of the problem after 11 diseased elk were identified in 2003. They implemented a testing and selective culling program that has reduced the elk population by more than half from its peak of 5,000. Of the 1,400 elk captured, collared and tested, 33 were found to be TB-positive. It has also been found in the white-tailed deer population, but at even lower levels.

Late last year, area producers were encouraged to learn Dr. Allan Preston, a cattle producer, veterinarian and former provincial assistant deputy minister of agriculture, has been appointed to co-ordinate the eradication effort between two levels of government, four departments and producer groups.

Preston is seen as a level-headed middleman who can cut through red tape and perhaps defuse tensions between federal officials and local producers.

He's optimistic the end is in sight. The domestic cattle herd is now considered disease-free, although uncertainty over the status of the wildlife in the area will necessitate continued testing, albeit on a much-reduced scale.

This year, only 26 herds in the region, involving 3,400 head of cattle, are being tested by CFIA vets compared with 625 herds involving 50,000 head a decade ago.

But that's partly because there are fewer cattle to test. The rate of attrition in local cattle operations is four times the provincial average, Preston says.

As a serious disease that affects multiple species, TB is worth eradicating, and much progress has been made. Just a generation ago, people were still at risk of getting it from drinking milk from an infected cow.

But the fight to wipe out TB has been expensive -- about $20 million spent by governments so far -- and not without casualties.

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: laura@fbcpublishing.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 19, 2013 B5

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