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BSE testing and the positives to your cattle herd

Animal Health with Roy Lewis: Testing is still needed to demonstrate producers' due diligence

Proper testing can serve as a surveillance program to better understand what diseases kill livestock.

In Canada, we have to keep up our BSE testing numbers to maintain and improve our status as a “controlled (low-risk) BSE risk country.”

Along with testing to determine if a suspicious or downer animal has BSE, as a side benefit the veterinarian conducting the autopsy and sample collection can also determine the cause of death if it is not otherwise evident.

It is important that beef producers realize that the National Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy Surveillance Program is still performed. Since 2004 we have been just under the goal of testing 30,000 head per year across Canada. That may be due to the cow herd being smaller as well as healthier and younger, but we still need to strive collectively to seek out, test and autopsy all the dead, dying, down or diseased animals older than 30 months, as well as any showing obvious neurological disorders.

In the early days of BSE testing some producers worried what would happen if an animal tested positive. In that extremely rare event, only the pen mates of the suspect animal around the same age in the herd would be tested and potentially put down.

We are almost at the negligible BSE risk category since we haven’t had a new case since February 2015. Achieving the negligible risk category could significantly increase the number of countries importing beef. There could also be considerable savings at slaughter if the need to remove the specified risk materials (SRMs) was reduced or eliminated.

Important to keep testing

We need to continue testing cows to demonstrate our due diligence to the authorities, and in my mind everyone must do their part. Producers need to report the dead, dying, down or diseased cattle to their veterinarians, who should respond and get these cows tested.

There is no longer an upper limit on age, so cows 30 months and older are eligible for testing. There is no cost to the producer and there is even a $75 per head remuneration.

To me as a herd veterinarian, there are considerable benefits that go along with BSE testing. Your veterinarian gets to perform an autopsy and determine the animal’s cause of death.

A post-mortem may reveal a preventable disease with vaccinations such as blackleg, or a pneumonic condition or lungworms, to name a few. Until BSE testing, I never realized we had clostridium hemolyticum (redwater) in our area and it was likely killing a few cows. Autopsies may also reveal an aging condition such as thinness from lack of teeth, indicating an earlier culling protocol based on age and condition may be necessary.

If pyelonephritis (a kidney infection) is discovered, perhaps earlier recognition and treatment with something like penicillin could have been successful. If Johnes disease is found, it might indicate earlier culling or testing be necessary and work at minimizing spread from cows to their nursing calves.

Before BSE testing stared in 2003 I could have probably counted on two hands how many post-mortems I had done on cows. Until a farmer lost two or more animals in very close succession, no one saw the need for an autopsy.

Now, knowing what is causing the losses it can help in herd management. I have had herds where TRP (hardware disease) was found and we could trace it back the source of metal. Good advice can be gleaned as to how to prevent this same situation. If TRP becomes more prevalent on a farm, rumen magnets can be used as a preventative measure. It all depends if the metal source is a ferric compound and attracted to a magnet.

Since the surveillance program pays the veterinarian $100 per test plus mileage to the farm, perhaps other procedures can be done or animals examined and no further mileage fees will be charged. And veterinary visits also help to establish the VCPR (veterinary-client patient relationship).

It is a multiple-win situation in my eyes. Veterinarians are fulfilling their mandate of testing mature suspect cows and bulls older than 30 months. In the same visit, producers can find the cause of death, establish a relationship with the veterinarian, get compensated about $75 and get the satisfaction of knowing they are helping keep Canada’s beef markets open.

Producers need to remember that every time a cow dies, BSE testing can be done. It is very unlikely there will be any BSE-positive tests, but the testing program can serve as a surveillance program to better understand what diseases are killing mature stock.

About the author


Roy Lewis is an Alberta-based veterinarian specializing in large-animal practice. He is also a part-time technical services vet for Merck Animal Health.



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