WANHAM, Canada — This is how quickly a cattle farmer's luck turns bad. One day, Marwyn Peaster was in business, as successful as the next man in a country where 50-below-zero winters and parching summer droughts sometimes make success more a state of mind than a line on a balance sheet.
Then, last week, a government official called and said one of Peaster's cows had tested positive for "mad cow" disease. Almost immediately, the freight trucks showed up and began herding up Peaster's cows, all 150 of them, until his holding pens were empty and the only sounds on the Alberta farm were the mooing and stomping in the trucks, and then the rumble of big truck engines, and then nothing, if one doesn't count sighs.
Within 24 hours, Peaster's cows were slaughtered and tested, and a federal veterinarian drove out to Mel McCrae's small farm in Baldwinton, Saskatchewan. It looked like Peaster's infected cow may have originated from McCrae's herd, the official said. The 65-year-old farmer, who raises purebred Angus, was asked if he might have imported the animal from Britain, where mad cow disease was rampant in the 1980s and 1990s.
No, McCrae replied. If it was one of his cows, it was born right there in Canada. The implication was clear: mad cow disease, one of the most frightening of livestock illnesses because it can infect the human food supply, had probably reached North America.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 31, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 65 words Type of Material: Correction
"Mad cow" disease -- Recent articles in Section A and the Business section have stated that variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans is caused by eating products contaminated with the agent that causes bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or "mad cow" disease. Although scientists believe that there is strong evidence that eating such products can cause a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the link is not definitively established.
"You could just see him dying a few deaths," McCrae recalled Saturday. "Because he knew the problem was greater than he'd ever dreamt of it being."
16 Farms Targeted
A total of 16 farms are now under quarantine across three provinces in central Canada, as investigators attempt to track down the source of an infection -- so far, only a single case -- that has the potential of crippling Canada's $21.9-billion livestock industry and threatening the top foreign supplier of live cattle to the United States.
Beef infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, has been linked to 129 human cases of a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which causes paralysis and death.
With the U.S. and several other nations already banning Canadian beef imports, feedlots are backing up, cattle auctions have been canceled, and government investigators are struggling to determine whether contaminated feed was responsible for infecting Peaster's cow -- and if it was, how many other cattle may have been exposed. So far, 267 cattle connected to the Peaster farm have been slaughtered for testing, with results due early this week.
Nowhere has the BSE crisis hit harder than in the Peace River region here in west-central Alberta, whose rolling, emerald pastures are some of the best cattle-raising country in the world. Alberta is Canada's biggest beef-producing province, a $3-billion industry that exports about a billion pounds of beef and half a million live cows to the U.S. every year.
These are not the mega-ranches of Texas and Montana, where tens of thousands of cattle might graze over miles. Most farmers here have a few hundred cattle at most; they raise their own barley, hay and canola to feed their cows, winter them in their own small pastures, sell them in the fall to pay for next year's seed and possibly a new bull or two.
In recent years, Alberta farmers have survived grass fires, the dismantling of the Canadian Northern Railway tracks that took much of their grain to market, and last year, the worst drought in modern memory. "And now this," said Jean Charluck, mayor of Fairview, 20 miles north of Peaster's farm in Wanham, which is struggling to check the steady drain of population that has threatened the community's tax base, businesses and schools.
"We're fighting for our lives, basically," Charluck said. "It was a very devastating year for cattle farming last year. Farmers couldn't afford to feed their cows even. And there wasn't any feed because it was so dry. Now this mad cow. It just keeps piling up, and it's going to be hard to fight their way out of it."
Harvey Watchorn, whose family homesteaded in the Peace River region in 1910, says he won't be able to sell this year's yearlings until the U.S. import ban is lifted and Canada's beef stock is declared safe. "I could show you what we're already up against up here, and what we're having to do to survive," he said.
"The impact of this mad-cow thing is going to be worldwide, and for us up here, it's going to be devastating," he added. "There are lots of people who make their living off these cattle."
Cattle farmers hope investigators will be able to quickly track down the source of the infection and determine that no other cattle are infected. That way, the crisis could blow over as quickly as it did during Canada's only other instance of BSE, in 1993. In that case, it was determined that the infected bull had been imported from Britain, ruling out a North American outbreak.