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Research: A living lab

News Roundup from the September 2015 issue of Canadian Cattlemen

First-year test results from the Western Canadian Cow-Calf Surveillance Network are going out to participating producers as the research team gears up for the second cycle of this five-year project.

The foundation was laid by recruiting herds into a network intended to inform industry on the health status of the western herd and pertinent management practices.

Whether the surveillance network will be ongoing after the project ends still remains to be seen. “First, we have to see if we can sustain it for five years and look at the value we get from it,” says team lead, Dr. John Campbell of the Western College of Veterinary Medicine. It’s a massive pro­ject with complicated logistics and significant commitments of people, time, effort and money.

The Beef Cattle Research Council confirmed funding for the project in 2013 and recruitment of the network herds got underway in early 2014. A near full allotment of 120 benchmark herds located across the Prairies is in place. But a few more are needed in specific areas to make the network truly representative of the national herd, Campbell explains.

Each province has been divided into geographical regions, with herds selected to represent each region’s proportion of the national herd on the surevey. The Prairies are home to 80 to 85 per cent of the national cow herd. Herd sizes ranges from the minimum 100 to more than 3,000 cows, again to align with national averages.

Blood and fecal samples were collected from 20 cows per herd by local vets at preg-check time which spanned from October through January 2015. Working out the logistics and co-ordinating with local vets to get the samples and then making sure the samples are processed, has been a big part of the initial phase of the work.

Trace mineral tests were collected in the summer and the results are already going out to the producers and their veterinarians while the blood samples were being analyzed for antibodies to various infectious diseases. That work was nearing completion last month. The next step will be to analyze those results on the whole population and compile summary reports for the industry.

Alberta Beef Producers and the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture have provided additional funding to assist with the analyses.

This will provide insights into whether our cows are deficient in trace minerals, which minerals, and where, as well as the prevalence of infectious diseases across Western Canada. The prevalence of trichonomiasis and vibriosis from a bull study by Dr. Cheryl Waldner is included.

An important part of the blood sampling to be done every second year is establishing a bio-bank. Multiple samples are taken from each animal and further divided into serum samples to be preserved for future reference.

“We are finding that it (the surveillance network) isn’t a rapid response to detect imminent or new disease threats because it takes time to get samples, but if we do have a disease threat we will have the bank to detect its presence in earlier years,” Campbell explains.

Participating producers will also be responding to three or four surveys each year, one of which will be an annual production and productivity survey.

Shorter surveys on specific management areas carried out so far include antibiotic use (drugs used, what for, how often), economics and marketing (in co-oper­ation with Kathy Larson, Western Beef Development Centre, Western Canadian Cow-Calf Survey), painful procedures, animal welfare, winter feeding and mineral supplementation.

“The beauty of this is that it’s a living lab. Producers are staying on for five years so if somebody needs to know something, we already have the herds recruited and can ask,” Campbell says. Without a network in place, researchers have to start from square one finding producers to participate in research projects.

Campbell heads a team of respected researchers within the beef community including Cheryl Waldner, Murray Jelinski, Joe Stookey, Greg Penner, and Eric Micheels from the University of Saskatchewan, Kathy Larson from the Western Beef Development Centre, and Eugene Janzen, Claire Windeyer and Nathan Erickson from the University of Calgary. Sarah Parker, research associate with the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, has the multi-faceted task of managing the logistics. The BCRC advises on issues of importance to beef producers.

Updates will be available on the BCRC website at

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