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Making Quarantine Pay

A memo board in John Buckley’s Buck-office tells the story of how quickly a successful operation went downhill with the announcement of one Alberta cow testing positive for BSE. The Lindsay, Ont., producer of champion Holstein cows saw the value of his herd drop to 10 per cent of its book value within a month. The bank said his cows were only worth $300 apiece down from $3,000 and refused him financing. Fortunately, a positive attitude, his love for working with animals and international contacts kept Buckley from being another victim of the ban on shipping Canadian cows.

“I never erased that board,” Buckley explains. “It’s a reminder of how bad things got back then.” On April 20, 2003, Buckley had 120 heifers in quarantine on his farm waiting for the haggling over the Canada-U.S. exchange rate to be settled. But, the settlement never came because the border was closed and he was left with the heifers and their upkeep. He spent the next couple months selling the heifers in small groups and one by one delivering them across Canada in order to get them out of his pens.

“I trucked cattle across Canada to get some money,” Buckley recalls. “All my sales dropped by 50 per cent. I lost $1.5 million in exports, which meant I lost my business, plus my dairy herd was devalued.” It was five years until other countries accepted the science and began wanting Canadian animals again. A director for Holstein Canada, Buckley is currently involved in getting BSE removed from the health charts of countries that are still refusing Canadian animals. When that happens, he believes, cattle shipments will return to their pre-BSE levels.

Finally, Russia wanted cattle again and Buckley was asked to look after the quarantine. “That helped pull us up again,” he says. Quarantine takes about three months and involves preparing pens, taking delivery (including recording each animal’s identification and giving them new tags that will stay with them until delivery), vaccinating, testing for disease, and, finally, shipping the animals out. Karen, Buckley’s wife, does all the data entry, recording eartags and ensuring that each animal can be tracked and its history is accessible. acces-Veterinarians are on standby to check animals and provide health care. Buckley says the animals are given the royal treatment, just like the animals in his own herd a farm away.

The shipment to Russia involved 2,100 animals going by boat and, of that number, Buckley had 1,650 in quarantine on his farm. The remainder of the shipment was quarantined in Quebec. The animals were delivered from producers across Canada which made for some interesting times in the pens as the animals settled into their new surroundings. Buckley says he is paid per day per animal to cover all his costs for quarantine which covers all his costs from bedding to food to veterinary bills. He adds he treats all the animals like his own and he’s only had one complaint about how he cares for the animals he houses. He estimates he has cared for over 10,000 animals since he started the quarantine business.

Having a reputation as someone who loves animals is what helped Buckley get into the quarantine business. He says his father Harold, would buy and sell just about anything with four legs. “He had an eye for animals,” is how Buckley describes his father’s gift. But, the younger Buckley took the gift a little further learning how to care for and show prize animals. As a young man, he worked for Lloyd Wilson Auctions where he gained a strong work ethic. He became recognized for this ability to care for animals

What Does It Take?

The dark days of the BSE crisis may be over as more countries are beginning to open their borders to Canadian animals, but the financial crisis continues to hamper recovery. Alta Exports International Ltd., the company that arranges sales and transport of Canadian animals overseas experienced a slowdown in exports. Despite claims of economic recovery, the worldwide collapse of milk prices leaves the market for replacement heifers “nonexistent,” according to the exporter. Thankfully, there is a small move towards beef herd improvement by replacement, but the strength of the Canadian dollar is preventing Canadian herds from being fully competitive.

“We have a lot to offer because we have some of the best genetics in the world,” says Gary Smith of Alta Exports. But, he adds, there is a slowdown as buyers see that it takes longer to recoup their investment in those genetics.

However, when the buyers visit Canada and make purchases of Canadian-bred cattle, they expect their investment will receive the best care available until the animals arrive at their farms in Russia or Brazil. Smith says it takes a special kind of person to operate a quarantine and he says John Buckley’s operation near Lindsay, Ontario, is one of the best.

“Currently we use about six farms for quarantine across Canada,” Smith explains. “The main thing we look for is discretion and documentation. The Buckleys are very good at documentation and they have a good handling area and support people.”

Smith says a quarantine operator has to be a bit gregarious and be comfortable meeting people at times that may not be convenient. “Sometimes we show up when an operator doesn’t want to see us to introduce buyers from Russia or other countries and we expect the operator to take the time to meet with them.”

John Buckley recalls during their big Russian shipment he and Karen hosted the Russian buyers, Alta Exports personnel, and local veterinary staff. Not only did they answer questions about the care of the animals, but they served the crowd a home-cooked meal.

It’s a team effort, according to Smith. “We all have to work together to make it work,” he says in reference to the chain of events from the first sale of an animal, to the quarantine to the eventual shipping and delivery.

and his understanding of their individual needs, which eventually led him to showing and selling prize Holsteins and the quarantine business.

“I was given a gift to pick good cattle,” Buckley admits, “and, over time, I also became recognized for my ability to look after animals.”

His ability helped him through the BSE crisis because he was offered opportunities to board animals that were intended for other uses. He boarded a herd of rodeo bulls that were between gigs, which was an education in itself as he learned how pampered these bulls can be. “You had to get creative during the BSE crisis,” he admits.

“If you have a niche product, you can get well paid for it,” he continues. Providing, of course, outside forces don’t curtail your opportunities!

Buckley sees many opportunities to make the industry better for all producers. He says the dairy industry never had a mandatory disease-testing program prior to the BSE crisis which could have helped producers who were unable to ride out the ensuing storm. Buckley suggests, if mandatory testing had existed, infected animals would have been culled, the crisis could have been averted, and producers would have been compensated for the loss. While he continues to push for a mandatory test for bovine leukosis, similar to that used for tuberculosis, the process is stalled due to lack of funding.

“A mandatory test is good insurance in case something goes wrong,” he admits. A mandatory testing system would include some dollars to fall back on, he explains.

Certainly, when he was in the dark days that are illustrated on the memo board in his office, Buckley wasn’t sure how, or if, his operation could survive. But, a positive attitude and a strong belief in what he was doing kept him going. He always believed that the Canadian system would prove itself. “We’ve been able to get world orders because of our tracking system,” he explains. “Our guys are second to none in terms of being able to trace an animal.”

In the end, the quarantine business is very slowly picking up again, although economic issues continue to affect export opportunities. As Buckley says, Canada has the best system in the world and animals shipped from his quarantine lot are the best cared for in the world.

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