Canada

WHEN GOOD COWS GO BAD

John Intini May 14 2001
Canada

WHEN GOOD COWS GO BAD

John Intini May 14 2001

WHEN GOOD COWS GO BAD

Canada

John Intini

With the coming of spring, new calves at Friesvale Farms have emerged from the barn to test their spindly legs in pastures growing greener by the day. But Friesvale’s peaceful image hides a harsh reality that begins at sunrise when owner John Ysselstein starts his workday. His first task on this 400-acre dairy farm near Woodstock, Ont., is to fill a foot basin with the disinfectant Virkon. He then asks a visitor to wash his shoes in the highly toxic pink liquid before putting on plastic shoe covers and a pair of clean coveralls. During this spring of discontent, such precautions are grimly repeated across Canada as besieged farmers ponder a nightmare: the feared arrival of foot-and mouth-disease.

Since the outbreak began in Britain in

February, nearly 2.4 million sheep, pigs and cows have been destroyed there. The disease, which causes blisters around the feet and mouth of cloven-hoofed animals, has also spread to the Netherlands—where another 80,000 animals are set to be put down—and to Ireland and France. And

Canadian farmers fear foot-and-mouth disease will soon spread to Canada

even though the number of new cases of the disease has slowed of late, the carnage has cast a long shadow over Canadas $4.5billion livestock industry. Many believe it is only a matter of time before the scourge reaches Canada, and they claim the gov-

ernment is not doing enough to prevent it. “If even one case is discovered, the borders will close and I will be shut right down,” says Ysselstein, 42. Walking through his pole barn, which shelters a herd of800 catde, he notes many farmers dread the approaching tourist season—and the possibility that a visitor will bring the highly contagious bacteria to Canada. “If it’s found near my farm, my family might as well pack up and walk away,” says Ysselstein. “The government would exterminate everything. It would be all over for us.” Gordon Musgrove understands Ysselsteins fears. In 1952, Musgroves grandparents’ cattle farm in Jenner, Alta., was sealed off for 18 months when foot-and-mouth struck during the last outbreak in Canada. “They couldn’t buy or sell anything,” says Musgrove, 45, now a rancher running 500

Canada

'If it’s found near my farm, my family might as well pack up and walk away. The government would exterminate everything. It would be all over for us’

head of catde on the 1,800-acre One Tree Ranch near Patricia, Alta. “They always said it took them the rest of their lives to recover. We cant let it happen again.” More than money is at stake. “Just look at Britain,” Musgrove adds. “The suicide rates are way up because people are watching their lives being destroyed. The same thing would happen here.”

Across Canada, many prestigious cattle shows, including the 29-year-old Ontario Holstein Spring Show, have been cancelled because of fears the disease could be carried here by a buyer from Europe. There are concerns that Ontario’s world-famous Royal Agricultural Winter Fair held each November may also be postponed.

“Those running the shows have asked Europeans not to come to make sure nothing crazy happens,” says John Martin, co-owner ofMarthaven Holsteins in Woodstock, Ont. Like Ysselstein, Martin, the owner of a 200-acre spread, is taking no chances. He too has asked visitors to disinfect and wear protective clothing.

Canada’s position as a world leader in cattle genetics means Canadian farmers should benefit in the long term, providing new cattle seed for European farmers to replenish their herds. Still, big questions remain whether British farmers will be able to afford new stock—or if they will even want to rebuild an industry so hard hit in recent years, first by mad-cow disease and now by foot-and-mouth. Now, even though North America so far remains foot-and-mouth free, Canadian dairy farmers are starting to feel an economic pinch. Martin, who operates his family’s 70-year-old farm with his father, Doug, says just before the outbreak he sold a cow for $25,000 to an English buyer. “The cow is supposed to have been shipped to England already, but with the ban in place it’s not going anywhere,” says Martin,

who estimates that foot-and-mouth will cost him up to $ 100,000 in sales if the crisis lasts into fall. “If this drags on, I’m sure he is going to ask for his money back.” Similarly, at Bosdale Farms in Cambridge, Ont., the four Dutch-Canadian brothers who own and operate the busi-

ness have put the sale of $50,000 worth of cattle embryos destined for Britain on hold. Worries over the disease have also slowed trade within Canada. The problem: farmers say there is no guarantee the expensive animal they buy today will not have to be destroyed in a few months if the disease reaches Canada.

The danger is expected to grow as tourist season reaches its summer peak. While airports are taking precautions— with mats to disinfect shoes and boots—

farmers are still concerned someone will slip through the cracks. (Sniffer dogs have also been deployed at airports to search out food products arriving from Europe that could contain foot-and-mouth bacteria.) Frédérique Moulin, a veterinarian with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in Ottawa, says the government is well aware of the threat and is expanding its information campaign to make people aware of the problem. But that does little to ease farmers’ concerns. “I was talking to someone who flew into Detroit from Europe just because he got a cheaper flight,” says Ysselstein. “Then he came across the Canadian border with no questions asked.”

Being near an airport deeply troubles 66-year-old dairy farmer Paul Ekstein, who operates Quality Holsteins in Woodbridge— only 15 km away from Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. “You can’t be paranoid, but you have to be careful,” he says, glancing adoringly at the pictures of his prizewinning dairy cattle covering the walls of his home office. “All it takes is one mistake.”

Worried farmers have already forced the federal government to keep some Europeans out of the country. In early April, pressure from Western cattlemen forced the British army to cancel a training mission for 1,000 British troops at CFB Suffield in southern Alberta. A second exercise scheduled for June could also be cancelled. “If they don’t get things together in the U.K. by June,” says Musgrove, “we’re going to start hollering again.”

Others are frustrated with the example set by Prince Charles, who visited Ontario, Saskatchewan and the Yukon in late April with an entourage of 35 people—most from Britain. It was not enough, they say, that he stepped into disinfectant before stepping onto the red carpet upon his arrival in Ottawa. “Why did he have to come over now?” says Paul Bridón, a 58year-old cattle breeder from Cambridge. “British farmers would never think to travel right now. It is way too big a risk.” With foot-and-mouth still a threat, Canadian cattlemen are in for a long nervous summer. ESI