Cow-calf study uncovers key health trends

What does two years of data from a comprehensive cow-calf survey of Western Canada look like?

Like a lot of information.

A team of researchers led by Dr. John Campbell at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) are about to begin the third year of a groundbreaking five-year study tracking thousands of cattle across three prairie provinces.

To date they’ve gathered information on nearly 120 herds in Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan and are already coming up with preliminary results. As part of the study, researchers are building a massive bank of blood and fecal samples collected by local veterinarians. Last fall, thousands of these samples arrived at the WCVM.

“Once [those samples] get analyzed, we’re going to have a great picture of what the trace mineral deficiencies are in cattle across Western Canada,” says Campbell, head of WCVM’s Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences.

Although all the samples have not been analyzed yet, the preliminary results reveal that the majority of cows sampled — about 82 per cent — had some level of copper deficiency. Campbell says this finding will lead to further research into what factors are associated with the deficiency, and the additional nutrient analysis will provide useful information to veterinarians, producers and nutritionists.

“Once we pair that with how people feed their cows during the winter and their geographic region, we’ll have even more information.”

WCVM epidemiologist Dr. Cheryl Waldner is analyzing the accumulated data for micronutrients, trace minerals and vitamin nutrition in the herds.

“The beef industry spends a lot of money every year on vitamins and trace minerals. However, we still have a lot to learn about the most efficient and effective ways to supplement cow-calf herds,” she says.

There’s still things to be learned there, and this study will definitely contribute to that.”

Testing for Johne’s disease has already been done and Waldner sees the potential to use the network to spot other diseases.

“The cow-calf surveillance study will fill in important gaps in knowledge both in animal management and disease for veterinarians and producers in Western Canada.”

The team has already distributed two surveys to their network of producers. The first was a general study of demographics and production, and the second dealt with antimicrobial drug use in cattle.

“There are no other recent studies on antimicrobial use in the cow-calf industry,” says Waldner. “The last similar work was done in 2002.”

Campbell predicts a “good news story” from the results of their antimicrobial survey that asked producers for specific details about antibiotic drug use in their herds.

“There’s a lot of pressure on how we use antimicrobials in food animals. I think it’s going to show the cow-calf industry doesn’t use a lot [of these drugs],” he says. Fecal samples collected last fall are also being analyzed for antimicrobial resistance levels.

“We’re going to be able to link how they use antibiotics on the farm to the antimicrobial resistance levels in the cows on the farm and see if those are related at all. That will be a neat picture, too,” Campbell says.

The study will also track reproductive success year after year. So far the study has found a 91 per cent pregnancy rate, with rates ranging from 73 per cent to 99 per cent in individual herds.

“What will probably be interesting is the yearly trends,” says Campbell. “Hopefully that information will give us a good picture of where the industry is and what’s attainable, and perhaps where we could improve.”

Accessing the study’s network of producers has allowed beef economist Kathy Larson at the Western Beef Development Centre to update a production benchmark study that was last conducted in 1998. Updated information about marketing and herd management will allow her organization to reinforce its best-practice recommendations with real data.

“With this survey data, I will have numbers to support research and extension on recommended best practices,” says Larson.

Access to the surveillance network will also allow researchers at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM) to examine management practices associated with pain and stressful events such as dehorning, castration and branding.

“It’s such a large and diverse industry, [so] having a nice, reliable group we know we can survey is a really big advantage for this project,” says UCVM scientist Dr. Claire Windeyer.

She says the study is an “exciting collaboration” between the two colleges that will allow researchers to “get a better understanding of how producers think.”

The study is backed by a $1.06 million investment from the Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC) to provide Canada-specific information to those in the cattle industry. Canadian researchers and producers have long been at a disadvantage to their American counterparts who have access to the comprehensive National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS).

“It’s nice to be able to have western Canadian numbers. I think they carry more credibility amongst producers,” says Larson. “I know it’s a lot of work, but I think it’s a really great project to see here.”

Managing the study’s immense amounts of data has been challenging for the researchers, but they’re optimistic about how the survey’s findings will bring long-term benefits to Canada’s cattle industry.

“There’s a lot of potential to answer some very, very practical, wide-ranging questions for the industry,” says Waldner.

Above: photo by Michael Raine. 

Jeanette Stewart of Rockglen, Sask., is a graduate of the University of Regina’s School of Journalism program and a 2015 WCVM research communications intern.