Just a Matter of Time


In ancient times the main measure of wealth and
status was the number of livestock a person owned.
Cattle were much more important than land as the
ancient Germanic peoples were essentially nomadic.
– Horik Svensson, The Runes

The first thing a rancher does when he gets up in the morning is check the temperature. If the sun is up, he’ll look into the sky. Then he listens to the radio forecast. There is nothing that fills his thoughts more than if it will rain or how cold it was last night. The weather is his constant companion. Not only must he go out to work in it every day, but his livelihood begs mercy from it.

In May 2003, ranchers in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and the northwest United States were nearing the end of a multi-year drought. Both British Columbia and Manitoba had seen more moisture in those years, but conditions were still considered dry. When rain does come to the prairies, heavy clouds are known to roll in and release an inch of moisture on one farm while completely overlooking the nearest neighbour.

Because of the drought, cow numbers in both countries were down. There was little forage to eat, so some herds were sold off or boarded at ranches in other parts of the country. Anticipating the growing need to replace the cows butchered because of the drought, astute cattlemen who did have feed were holding back heifers and breeding them in record numbers. Hopes were that these animals would sell for a high price in the fall.

By the end of May, most prairie crops were sown and a few well-timed showers were nudging the fields and pastures green. Optimism was high that this was going to be a good year.

December 9, 2004

The highway between Consort, Alberta, and Macklin, Saskatchewan, is scenic beyond expectation. The Cypress Hills swell up on the southern landscape like a nest of giant goose eggs, surprising travellers who believe that Saskatchewan is flat.

As I turn onto Highway #13 east, the sun lands on the car mirrors, its burnt orange reflection stinging my eyes. Ahead, the frozen blacktop glistens. It’s cold enough outside that flurries coming from the southwest dance across the highway instead of lying down. A few inches of snow blanket the lonesome hills.

Weather-ruined barns and broken-down turn-of-the-century homes poke up like gravestones in fields along the highway. The overgrown laneways lead to open doors that force us to wonder about the lives that once existed here. I used to think that these ruins should be torn down, but not anymore. They serve as gentle reminders that life is constantly changing. Nothing out here is guaranteed except that weather will continue to vex the farmer and cattleman as long as he’s on the land.
It will be dark soon and I’m running late.

Weeks on the road have taught me that you can’t tell a community’s size by glancing at its name on a map. Many towns now are nothing but pastures and grain fields, with only a post office or cairn showing where the school once sat. If I’m lucky, Macklin has a gas station.

It has been 18 months since BSE was discovered in Canada and the United States’ border slammed shut to live cattle imports. In the back seat, along with my suitcase and snack cooler, are ink-filled notebooks that hold the stories of more than fifty families affected by the crisis.

My thoughts meander for a moment as feelings of longing rise up.

I’ll be home tomorrow night.

It’s a seven-hour drive from Saskatoon to our ranch nestled along the eastern shore of Lake Manitoba. I’ve lived in Manitoba for more than 20 years now. My husband, Mark, has been a rancher most of his life. We raised our son, Laurie, into a man on one of the calmest, cleanest places on earth.

The average husband would balk at his wife being away for weeks at a time, but not Mark. Maybe that’s because I’m not as easy to live with as I like to think—or maybe it’s because he sees the light in my eyes when I am researching and writing about something I love. It’s the same shine I see in him when he’s with the cattle.

I coast on nothing but fumes toward a nest of lights in a valley that’s Macklin. I’ve run low on gas twice this trip, and blame the back roads of Saskatchewan each time. I find my way through town, fill up the tank, then turn north on the road that will take me to Baldwinton.

Tonight’s interview is one of the most important of the entire trip. Knowing this has wound my stomach like a rope. The McCreas have been interviewed so many times this past year, I’m worried they’ll have nothing left to say. Having the first homegrown case of BSE in Canada traced back to their farm will have affected them in ways other cattle producers can only imagine.

BSE is the acronym for “Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy,” commonly known as “Mad Cow Disease.” It is a perplexing cattle disorder that has taken scientists years to understand. When it was first discovered in Britain in 1986, its origins were a mystery, and similarities to the human disease Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) were troubling. By 1989, Britain banned human consumption of cattle offal because of growing consumer concern that CJD might result from ingesting beef. The British cattle industry began spiralling downward as beef consumption decreased and 23 non-European Union countries, including Canada and the United States, banned the import of British beef. That country’s billion-dollar industry was devastated.

Directions to the McCrea farm take me down an unmarked road toward a cluster of lights in an otherwise black expanse that stretches starless into the night. The moon hangs overhead like a clipped toenail and I wonder how its newness will affect the coming week’s weather.

A yard light illuminates the roof of a modest white bungalow sitting at the crest of a semi-circular drive. A silhouette glides away from the picture window as I park the car. Gathering my notebook and camera in my arms, I step into the crisp air. All is silent except for the hum of electrical lines overhead. The stillness is soon shattered by the crunching of snow under my boots as I hurry toward the front door. It opens and Betty McCrea beckons me inside.

Though my glasses are fogged, I immediately recognize the modest surroundings of farm people. Honest. Hardworking. Practical. They’ve spent their entire lives giving everything back to the land and their cattle.

“I was starting to worry,” Betty says, taking my coat. She is a soft yet sturdy woman who has the look of someone who can put in a full day outside in the fields or working cattle whenever needed.

I apologize for being late. She waves it off, motioning for me to follow her and the smell of roasted beef through the living room into the kitchen. Nothing here shouts extravagance—not the furnishings or sparse decorating. Not even the older, upright piano that sits along the far wall, sheet music spread out ready to play.

She says the men have already eaten as she pulls out a chair for me at the end of the table. She’s kept supper heated and my heart warms to her thoughtfulness.

At first I don’t see her husband, Mel, who is sitting in silence at the opposite end of the table. His thick arms are folded firm across his chest. He appraises me, heavy jowls looking somewhat hardened by the intrusion of BSE into his life. On the wall behind him are two paintings—one of Black Angus cattle and the other of a Labrador dog. They look to be commissioned by the same person, a local artist who captures treasured images for a fee.

My glasses clear in time to meet their son, Trevor, who emerges freshly showered from the other end of the house. Trevor nods politely as he slides in behind the table.

The McCreas are long past the need for chitchat and immediately take me back to the Victoria Day long weekend in May 2003. Tissue samples from the brain of a six-year-old, non-ambulatory (downer) cow from Alberta had tested suspicious for BSE and been sent to the BSE World Reference Laboratory in Weybridge, England, for further testing. A positive result was reported back to Canadian officials halfway through the weekend. On Tuesday, May 20, the announcement came that Canada had its first indigenous case of BSE.

It was Mel who answered the phone early the following morning.

“I could tell by the look on his face that something was wrong,” Betty says, pushing bowls of food toward me, encouraging me to fill my plate. “By 10 a.m. the CFIA was here to quarantine the farm.”
CFIA is the acronym for Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the government department responsible for the delivery of all federal food, animal and plant health inspection programs. The CFIA needed to determine if the infected cow discovered in Alberta was born to the McCrea herd.

The family’s immediate reaction was disbelief. The sight of federal inspectors and the media descending upon their home was like a scene from a movie.

Initially, the ranch was quarantined so livestock could not leave or be brought into the yard. Quarantines give the impression of contagion, but in the case of BSE, it is done to account for all animals that may have been exposed to the same feed source.

Days later, the CFIA staff returned and began going through breeding records.

Betty explained that the investigators went all the way back to 1995 and that she had to produce receipts for each year. With 110 cows, the McCrea herd was considered modest in size. Seventy of the cows were purebred animals registered with the Canadian Angus Association, so tracking their progeny’s movement from the farm would be easy. Most of the female calves were either kept by the McCreas to replace older “cull” cows or sold as breeding stock. Around a dozen bull calves were raised and sold as herd bulls. Any remaining calves would have been sold at around eight months of age to a feedlot.

The 40 commercial cows’ calves would be more difficult to trace because mixed breed animals are not registered at birth. Some of the female (heifer) calves would have gone to a feedlot with the male (steer) calves, but others could have been bought as breeding females and become part of a herd anywhere in Canada or the United States. While the McCreas would know the sire and which calf was born to which cow, they had no way of knowing the animal’s fate after it left their farm.

Mel suggested to the CFIA that there were DNA records at the Canadian Angus Association office in Calgary for all the bulls that had been used, but the agency officials didn’t seem interested in exploring this route until much later, after receiving pressure from the media.

It took a little more than two days for inspectors to go through breeding and sale records to trace forward all animals that left the farm since 1996. They compared the files with traceback information provided by Marwyn Peaster, the Alberta rancher who bought the seemingly healthy cow in the fall of 2002, shipping it to a packing plant in January 2003. Before that, the cow had lived on a Saskatchewan ranch for four years and gave birth to the same number of calves. And before that, she lived on an Alberta ranch.

As the CFIA combed through the McCrea records, the family was steadfast in the belief that the infected cow couldn’t have come from their herd. Like most cow-calf producers who raise beef animals, the McCrea cows eat very little purchased feed. They graze all summer on pasture, then during the winter months are fed silage made from homegrown barley and triticale. This is mixed with processed barley in a feed wagon then fed to the cattle. Since there were no other sick animals on the place, it seemed impossible to believe that the infected cow came from their herd.

Scientists believe that BSE is transmitted when cattle ingest feed containing the brain or spinal cord of an infected animal. In 1997, regulations were changed by the CFIA to stop the feeding of rendered material from cattle back to cattle. In theory, animals born after the feed ban should have no chance of contracting BSE. The McCreas were convinced that somebody must have made a mistake.

But it was a receipt for 400 pounds of calf starter pellets, bought and fed to 92 calves in 1997, that caught the inspector’s attention. The family was stunned. They gave it to their baby calves for a short period of time, from March 20 to May 20. A handful looks as harmless as rabbit food.

“I bought it for the first time that year,” Trevor says, shaking his head. “I thought we’d try it, to give the calves a boost. I thought we were doing a good thing.”

I ask if he examined the label on the bag and he told me that feed companies do not list ingredients, only nutrient percentages. He didn’t think to ask the source of the “16 percent protein” listed. Besides, he felt protected by the feed ban quietly imposed that year.

With no live test for BSE, the McCreas could do nothing but wait to hear the fate of their herd. They knew Canada’s stringent policy regarding containment and eradication of disease and feared the worst. The answer came just days later—from a newspaper reporter in the yard who’d heard through the newswire that the McCrea herd would be depopulated. It was confirmed by the CFIA hours later.
“I’ve been in cattle my whole life,” Mel says quietly, “so I understood what needed to be done. I was sure the rest of the cattle were clean, but for the sake of the industry, we had to let them go.”
I’d heard that Mel had been angry and devastated that the depopulation orders came way too fast. He seems to sense I know this and apologizes for lashing out at the officials and media. I tell him there’s no need. It’s a reaction cattle people understand.

The CFIA said they would return May 29 with trucks and staff to take all the cattle. The animals would need to be rounded up and corralled, then special ear tags would be inserted indicating they were destined for slaughter. Afterwards, the carcasses would be tested for BSE.

There is an unspoken law among cattlemen that strangers don’t interfere with or “work” another man’s animals. Producers take great pride in taking responsibility for their livestock, so a few friends and relatives helped Trevor process the animals on May 29. While the CFIA staff stood on the sidelines, the cows, calves and bulls were moved through the chute and up the loading ramp. Mel and Betty were too distressed to watch for long.

“It was time for the cows to go to pasture so they were happy to get on the truck,” Betty says.

We sit in silence, Mel and Trevor staring at the table with a wrung out look, reliving the hurt as if it happened yesterday. They weren’t consoled to know that depopulation orders were also sent to the three farms where the BSE-infected cow had lived and to the feedlot feeding her most recent calf. In all, 2,900 cattle were destroyed. No others tested positive.

I ask if they thought this was overkill.

They all shrug, then Trevor replies, “Those are the rules.”

Betty opens her journal and begins reading her notes out loud. She had the foresight to record the names of everyone she spoke to during those crushing weeks.

She says that with each new development in the BSE story, the phone will ring and it is another call from the media asking for their thoughts. She thumbs to the last entry and adds my name. Then she removes the lid from a shoebox and begins searching through a thick stack of letters. One woman from New Zealand wrote to offer her sympathies. Apparently, their story was in newspapers worldwide.
“People from all over sent us cards,” Mel says, “but the government doesn’t give a goddamn.”
It would be months after the herd was destroyed before the CFIA would agree to conduct DNA testing, after much media pressure to do so. The tests did confirm that a dam in their herd was the infected cow’s mother and that a prized bull used during the late 1990s, Anchor R Matlock Mindbar 13C, was the sire.

More than a year later, Mel still finds it hard to believe that the herd he developed through careful selection, over more than 40 years, is gone. This has left him with little to hand down to Trevor who had planned to take over the purebred business.

And while they are grateful for the compensation paid by the government for their animals (pre-BSE market value), the McCreas now find themselves battling Revenue Canada. Because they received a lump sum in one year, they are being taxed at windfall rates and stand to pay one third of it as income tax. Revenue Canada makes no allowances for their situation, even though this is clearly money the McCreas have been counting on to fund their retirement years.

“At that tax rate I’ll lose my pension for the year, too,” Mel says.

Their only option to beat back the taxman is to invest all the money back into cattle. They bought some heifers, but have the same worries as other producers about the industry’s future; as well, the prospect of rebuilding a purebred herd under the shroud of BSE is daunting.

“Would people buy heifers and bulls from us again?” Trevor asks. “We just don’t know.”

I’d heard that the CFIA could be difficult to deal with, so I ask the family what they think.

Betty says they were treated “fine” at the time, but were offended recently by news articles that suggest they were somehow to blame for the herd being depopulated. In the beginning, the CFIA praised them publicly for keeping good records, but this past spring, Brian Evans, chief veterinary officer with the agency, implied in a story in the Western Producer newspaper that if the McCreas and other producers kept better records, fewer animals would be destroyed during disease outbreak.

This surprises me. The government has always had a long-standing zero tolerance policy regarding disease control. Herd mates of infected animals are always destroyed, and they have convinced producers this is essential—with no exceptions—to protect the integrity of the national herd. To now focus back on the producer is unfair. If the CFIA has re-evaluated its protocols regarding BSE and since changed its policy, then it should simply say so.

The McCreas stop short of casting blame at anyone. They refuse to point a finger at the company that sold them the feed that was likely tainted. They don’t want to cause trouble for anyone, saying that everyone involved was simply doing their job.

What they do say, though, is how surprising it is that no one from the government or industry has asked their advice about how the situation could have been better handled. There must be some insight to gain from hearing the perspective from their side of the fence.

I sense that these people are still grieving. The fact that the U.S. border is still closed to live Canadian cattle makes their sacrifice seem pointless. Depopulation regulations have relaxed since 2003 and entire herds are no longer being destroyed. The absolutes they once lived under are shifting daily, and like many others in the industry, the McCreas are crippled by uncertainty and not ready to commit again to an industry that has left them bruised and hurting.

The hours have slipped by and I realize it is time for me to go. They walk me to the door and that’s when I notice five aerial farm photos hanging framed on the entrance wall. The earliest dates back to 1965, a photo showing a small, shingled house, chicken coop and little old barn. Mel explains he grew up not too far from here and that he bought this place in 1960. Shortly afterwards, in 1962, he and Betty were married.

His thick finger moves to the most recent photo taken in the summer of 2003. Lush fields stretch out in all directions. Modern fencing surrounds a large barn. A half dozen grain bins stand in a neat row along a windbreak of trees. Mel squints as he points at two people standing in the alleyway. The aerial photographer happened by when Trevor was being interviewed by a reporter.

“It would have been a better picture if the cows were still here,” Mel sighs, shaking off the sad thought as we both stare for a moment at the empty corrals.

Producers have quipped that the McCreas were one of the few families that got off easy since the border closed. At least they were paid pre-BSE values for their cattle. The look in their eyes, however, tells me an altogether different story—that the business of cows is about more than the money.
Mel extends his hand toward me in friendship and I return the gesture. A cattleman’s handshake. As firm as a contract and reliable as the rising sun.

There will be no farm tour following this interview. We exchange goodbyes and long after I’m on my way, I can still feel his hand in mine. It is almost as if everything Mel McCrea has felt these past eighteen months is pulsating up my arm.