TB Testing Blamed For Herd Health Decline

The verdant Birdtail River Valley, just south of Riding Mountain National Park, looks every bit like a rancher’s paradise.

Hillsides covered with tall, straight poplar and spruce trees shelter farmhouses and outbuildings dotting the lowlands, which are separated by neatly fenced pastures filled with lush green grass.

But the ranchers who have made these hills their homes for generations feel they are being hounded out of existence, stalked not only by a disease that has so far eluded control, but by federal efforts to contain it.

“This is what the CFIA calls TB Alley,” said rancher Rodney Checkowski, as he drove his blue Ford pickup over a steep hill bringing the valley’s broad expanse into view.

Checkowski is among several ranchers in these parts who say either the test used to monitor for bovine tuberculosis in their herds, or the repeated testing, is resulting in unexplained illnesses and deaths. It’s a claim the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) denies. (see story pg 12).

STANDOFF

But when he tried to force the CFIA to listen to those concerns, he found himself in a standoff involving the police and ultimately before the judge in a Brandon courtroom.

Checkowski was recently convicted of two counts under the Health of Animals Act and fined $1,500 for refusing to co-operate with CFIA officials seeking to test his cattle herd in 2008. He faces another trial June 17 on a second charge.

Unable to afford a lawyer, he presented his own defence, which was his belief that the tuberculin injections used by the CFIA were causing a range of health problems in his cattle, from abortions, failures to conceive, infections, and a mysterious ailment that causes animals to walk with a limp in their right or left hind legs, then progressively lose weight over a period of months and die.

IRKED

He didn’t expect to win the court battle against a lineup of CFIA veterinarians and experts. But what irked him most was the CFIA’s courtroom claim that of the 600 ranchers with 55,000 cattle in the Riding Mountain TB Eradication Area, only three have ever refused to comply.

Given his experience, that’s not surprising. But that doesn’t mean others haven’t experienced herd health problems in the wake of the TB testing.

Neighbour Metro Belbas paused from transplanting

“How do you tell them that they can’t come and test? They’ll bring the police and they’ll test.”

– KEVIN TERNOVETSKY

cabbages in his market garden greenhouse – a sideline he took up after selling off his purebred cattle herd – to list off a familiar litany of post-testing issues.

“My big concern was open cows. I still say that the TB-testing inoculant had something to do with it,” he said. “The CFIA will tell me, you, or anybody else that has nothing to do with it, that there’s no scientific proof.”

Few problems were noticed this year, but two years ago, he had 15 open cows post-TB testing.

“The year before that, it was the same thing,” he said. “Twenty to 25 per cent of the herd, that’s way too high. Whether it’s the inoculant, or the stress – I can’t see why the stress would matter – but then who am I?”

What really sank his purebred operation was a 211-day period in 2004 without a movement permit. The cost of maintaining 71 yearlings set him back almost $30,000 and the farm never recovered.

“Everyone else involved in the process except the ranchers was still getting a paycheque,” he said.

Belbas said he came to dread the repeated testing of his herd following the first outbreak in 1991. His herd has been tested 12 times over the years.

“We did it. We had to do it. We had no choice,” said Belbas, with his herd record books piled in front of him on the kitchen table.

In addition to making his cattle harder to handle, he believes the stress of testing also caused abortions.

TWO GENERATIONS

He recalls a top CFIA official telling farmers at a meeting that it would take two generations to clean up the problem.

“I don’t have two generations,” he said. “That’s fine and dandy. They’ve got to do what they’ve got to do. But somehow, be fair about it. They get paid well. But the last two times, we got $6.50 a cow.”

Martin Pendl moved his family to the Birdtail Valley in 2000 from Austria. Unaware of the TB problem, they bought eight quarters of land and started raising a herd of 600 cattle. Now, they are planning another move – out of the area.

“There is no future here in cattle farming,” he said. “It’s a nice area, the hills, everything. It’s a shame.”

ANGRY

Ask him about the CFIA, and his heavily accented English erupts in staccato sentences laced with anger.

“It’s how they handle the thing. They cannot fix the problem,” said Pendl, who holds a degree in agriculture.

“When they test the cattle, it has an effect, for sure. Cows abort, because they are under stress,” he said, adding that he believes that the tuberculin injections should not be administered to pregnant cattle for the same reason that pregnant women are never given vaccines.

Every time they test his herd, problems occur. Cows get wild because they are not accustomed to being run through the chutes twice in such a short period or being handled by strangers. The last time, it took nine people to do a job that he and his son can usually do together.

Two years ago, he had 14 “reactors” to the tuberculin injection. Thirteen of them turned up negative in the second phase of blood testing. One cow and her calf were killed and inspected, and in the end, found to be TB free.

For compensation, a CFIA official offered him $750 for the cow and calf. He recalled bitterly that it took two hours of arguing to get $1,350. The process was demeaning, unfair and showed a lack of respect for the farmer’s burden in testing for TB, he added.

“They try everything to squeeze you,” he said. “Why don’t they start with a fair price right away?”

CONCERNS IGNORED

Just up the road, Marvin Livetsky has tested his 35 head for as long as everyone else, choosing to have his bred cows tested in the fall or early winter. Over the years, after sick animals, abortions, and open cows started showing up, he opted for testing in May after calving.

“They told me that it doesn’t cause this. But it’s always right after testing,” he said. “Then I started getting calves that were sick after sucking the cows that were tested, and cows getting sick. I told them, and they were basically telling me that I’m a liar.”

In spring of 2006, one cow became sick a couple of weeks after testing. He gave her penicillin and other medications, but the cow gradually lost weight over a period of months. By October, he put her and her calf in a corral so that he could feed her grain, but she still continued to decline. The calf was poor, too, and by December, the cow died.

“I cut her open, and I found lesions inside the body cavity and around her intestines,” said Levitsky. “They were pus nodules, from the size of pea to a baseball. I phoned the CFIA and told them what I had, and they said, ‘Oh, no, it must be some kind of secondary infection.’ They never came out and looked at that cow.”

SKIN AND BONES

By mid-December, the calf, which was skin and bone, died too. He cut it open and found the same thing.

“We’re in a TB zone. But they would not come out. They diagnosed it over the phone,” said Levitsky. “I was so mad.”

In 2008, a “nice, healthy, big” heifer came down with the same mystery ailment three weeks after testing. After heroic amounts of medication, it survived, but stayed just “skin and bones.” That animal is still alive and slowly recovering, but did not have a calf this year.

Connie and Kevin Ternovetsky, who farm nearby say they, too, have had unusual health problems turning up in their herd of 70 cows since they began testing in 1991.

“How do you tell them that they can’t come and test? They’ll bring the police and they’ll test,” said Kevin.

They’ve had three reactors. One was suspected positive. It went for slaughter, but the TB pathogen couldn’t be cultured in the lab.

ODD INFECTIONS

The latest round of testing last winter saw a number of odd infections, including a milk cow with mastitis in all four quarters just a few days afterwards.

They ruled out mustering stress, because they regularly run their cattle through the chutes for blackleg vaccinations or AI. “Our cattle are handled lots,” said Connie.

“To have three cases of infection and two in calves two or three weeks after testing, something happened right there to trigger that,” he said.

Like Checkowski, they have tried asking the CFIA to skip the

“We’re not against testing. We want our animals tested, but we don’t want our animals hurt.”

– RODNEY CHECKOWSKI

tuberculin screening test and just take blood samples, said Connie.

The CFIA has said that’s not possible. In order for the blood test to work the animal must first be “primed,” or exposed to tuberculin, for the screening blood test and the secondary Bovigam test to work.

Judging from the number of reactors found that later led to false positives and failed culture samples over two decades, the whole testing procedure must be seriously flawed, says Connie.

Aside from bovine TB, and an avian strain, there is now rumoured to be a soil-dwelling variant in the area.

“Is this a problem that we can ever solve or are we going to be stuck with it forever?” said Kevin. “If we’re stuck with it forever, why should a little pocket of producers be stuck with paying for everything? That’s B. S.”

At Frank Sacharko’s farm, the yard is filled with machinery, with everything from a crawler tractor currently in the process of repair to a 30-foot circular sawmill and a large pile of saw logs. His garden is already well started, and he has a couple dozen baby chicks under a heat lamp on the porch.

LIMPING

Shortly after testing in December of 2008, eight of his cows began losing weight, then limping on a hind leg on the same side where the tuberculin was injected into the tail.

All of them died within the year, he said.

He has 26 cows left from his original herd of 40 head. The bull is thin, even though he was fed grain all winter, and one cow has developed an overgrown, pointy hind hoof from walking with a limp.

“Even with all this green grass and grain,” he said. “They’ve got something in them that is making them sick. What else is it from?”

“Before this testing, we never had no disease. Before if you had one cow die that was something, that was news. To lose that many cows in one year?”

Ed Maydaniuk’s place moves a stack of farm newspapers and ranching magazines off the table to make room for his guests. His family has been on this same three-quarter section farm for over 100 years.

On December 12, 2009, he had a cow react to the TB-screening test. The cow was slaughtered; no TB was found.

OPEN COWS

That was a good, healthy cow. The year before, a cow with lump jaw was found to be a reactor, too, but that was expected because she was in poor condition, said Maydaniuk.

He’s got 40 head of cows, and three bulls. Open cows are a big problem on his place, so he keeps two bulls with the herd at all times.

“Before they started testing, I didn’t have problems with the cows. I would get maybe three open, if that,” he said.

Now, he always seems to have at least 10 open cows in the herd every year, and at least one sick cow every year.

Besides mineral supplements, Maydaniuk has also tried bringing in hay from different areas, to no avail.

“In the last two years, I’ve lost 24 head of cattle and horses,” he said. A number of his calves have died from scours even at six to seven months of age, and even some of his horses have died from a similar diarrhea-like ailment.

NO FOLLOWUP

The CFIA test crews come into the yard, do their work, and then “can’t get out of the place fast enough,” he said, noting there is no followup visits or direct contact with the farmers.

“Listen to the people. Let’s sit down and work together,” said Maydaniuk. “Another thing, with the tuberculin, they can say what they want, but there is a side-effect.”

He noted that the flu shot may make a few people sick or even kill others, without affecting the majority.

Maydaniuk suspects that the two recent convictions of Checkowski and another farmer for refusing to comply with testing are aimed at silencing “the hillbillies” in the eradication area.

He added that a few other ranchers – those who haven’t given up and sold their herds – are having similar problems but are afraid to speak out, or believe that it is due to some management flaw on their part.

“We just want some answers,” he said. “What is the CFIA for? Come here and work with us.”

Back at the Checkowski place, Annette is serving dinner.

She pulls out a picture of her three grown daughters. All have moved away, and have no intention of farming.

NO FUTURE

Then, as she talks about their experience farming over the years, which saw them testing for TB for three decades. Over the years, Rodney lost 27 that were deemed to be reactors, and others to unexplained ailments, including nine that he either had to shoot or died on their own.

Tears well up in her eyes. “The only good that has come from this farm in all these years are our three girls,” she said.

As for Rodney, he thinks he might be able to make a dollar buying calves in spring and fattening them on his pastures. If he sold them before fall, he could avoid the hassle and potential problems of regular TB testing.

In his April 16 ruling, Judge John Combs made it clear that farmers must comply with CFIA testing orders under the act even if they have concerns about the procedures.

“I keep saying this so much that I’m starting to sound like a broken record,” he said. “We’re not against testing. We want our animals tested, but we don’t want our animals hurt.”

“We’re not against testing. We want our animals tested, but we don’t want our animals hurt.”

– RODNEY CHECKOWSKI

tuberculin screening test and just take blood samples, said Connie.

The CFIA has said that’s not possible. In order for the blood test to work the animal must first be “primed,” or exposed to tuberculin, for the screening blood test and the secondary Bovigam test to work.

Judging from the number of reactors found that later led to false positives and failed culture samples over two decades, the whole testing procedure must be seriously flawed, says Connie.

Aside from bovine TB, and an avian strain, there is now rumoured to be a soil-dwelling variant in the area.

“Is this a problem that we can ever solve or are we going to be stuck with it forever?” said Kevin. “If we’re stuck with it forever, why should a little pocket of producers be stuck with paying for everything? That’s B. S.”

At Frank Sacharko’s farm, the yard is filled with machinery, with everything from a crawler tractor currently in the process of repair to a 30-foot circular sawmill and a large pile of saw logs. His garden is already well started, and he has a couple dozen baby chicks under a heat lamp on the porch.

LIMPING

Shortly after testing in December of 2008, eight of his cows began losing weight, then limping on a hind leg on the same side where the tuberculin was injected into the tail.

All of them died within the year, he said.

He has 26 cows left from his original herd of 40 head. The bull is thin, even though he was fed grain all winter, and one cow has developed an overgrown, pointy hind hoof from walking with a limp.

“Even with all this green grass and grain,” he said. “They’ve got something in them that is making them sick. What else is it from?”

“Before this testing, we never had no disease. Before if you had one cow die that was something, that was news. To lose that many cows in one year?”

Ed Maydaniuk’s place moves a stack of farm newspapers and ranching magazines off the table to make room for his guests. His family has been on this same three-quarter section farm for over 100 years.

On December 12, 2009, he had a cow react to the TB-screening test. The cow was slaughtered; no TB was found.

OPEN COWS

That was a good, healthy cow. The year before, a cow with lump jaw was found to be a reactor, too, but that was expected because she was in poor condition, said Maydaniuk.

He’s got 40 head of cows, and three bulls. Open cows are a big problem on his place, so he keeps two bulls with the herd at all times.

“Before they started testing, I didn’t have problems with the cows. I would get maybe three open, if that,” he said.

Now, he always seems to have at least 10 open cows in the herd every year, and at least one sick cow every year.

Besides mineral supplements, Maydaniuk has also tried bringing in hay from different areas, to no avail.

“In the last two years, I’ve lost 24 head of cattle and horses,” he said. A number of his calves have died from scours even at six to seven months of age, and even some of his horses have died from a similar diarrhea-like ailment.

NO FOLLOWUP

The CFIA test crews come into the yard, do their work, and then “can’t get out of the place fast enough,” he said, noting there is no followup visits or direct contact with the farmers.

“Listen to the people. Let’s sit down and work together,” said Maydaniuk. “Another thing, with the tuberculin, they can say what they want, but there is a side-effect.”

He noted that the flu shot may make a few people sick or even kill others, without affecting the majority.

Maydaniuk suspects that the two recent convictions of Checkowski and another farmer for refusing to comply with testing are aimed at silencing “the hillbillies” in the eradication area.

He added that a few other ranchers – those who haven’t given up and sold their herds – are having similar problems but are afraid to speak out, or believe that it is due to some management flaw on their part.

“We just want some answers,” he said. “What is the CFIA for? Come here and work with us.”

Back at the Checkowski place, Annette is serving dinner.

She pulls out a picture of her three grown daughters. All have moved away, and have no intention of farming.

NO FUTURE

Then, as she talks about their experience farming over the years, which saw them testing for TB for three decades. Over the years, Rodney lost 27 that were deemed to be reactors, and others to unexplained ailments, including nine that he either had to shoot or died on their own.

Tears well up in her eyes. “The only good that has come from this farm in all these years are our three girls,” she said.

As for Rodney, he thinks he might be able to make a dollar buying calves in spring and fattening them on his pastures. If he sold them before fall, he could avoid the hassle and potential problems of regular TB testing.

In his April 16 ruling, Judge John Combs made it clear that farmers must comply with CFIA testing orders under the act even if they have concerns about the procedures.

“I keep saying this so much that I’m starting to sound like a broken record,” he said. “We’re not against testing. We want our animals tested, but we don’t want our animals hurt.” [email protected]

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