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Back in business after bovine TB

When Brad Osadczuk lost his entire herd to TB, he discovered which attitudes and skills really are essential for starting over

[Updated June 7, 2017] Brad Osadczuk’s ranch at Jenner, Alta., is eerily quiet in what would normally be the start of a very busy calving season. His pens are empty, not a cow is in sight.

This calving season, Osadczuk is a different kind of busy. He must find a new normal, since losing his entire herd to a destruction order from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) following a positive tuberculosis (TB) test when he exported animals to the U.S. last September.

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Line of black Angus cattle looking at the camera with blank blue sky

We meet at his kitchen table, and when I ask Osadczuk how he is feeling about the cattle business, his response is not what I might have expected. Instead, it’s a show of resilience, reflecting the spirit that is the Canadian cattle industry.

Maybe it could seem boastful to say that. But it also feels true.

“I am excited,” says Osadczuk. “I feel very positive about the potential of the Canadian cattle industry.”

It’s quite clear that Osadczuk isn’t giving in, or feeling sorry for himself. He says there is no time for that, and if it had to happen, he would be happy to be the fall guy again if it means helping to sustain the industry.

“Sure, it’s devastating to lose a herd that has taken you years to build, onto a truck to be destroyed, but it is a small price to pay for the bigger picture. Without a TB-free environment within the Canadian cattle industry, we would not have access to export markets,” says Osadczuk. “And no, it’s not perfect. It is going to take me at least 10 years to get things all smoothed out again, but without open markets for our cattle, myself, my neighbours and the industry will go broke.

“Sure, it’s devastating to lose a herd,” Osadczuk says of the destruction order that claimed his 1,200 cows and 50 bulls. Now, though, he’s climbing back.
photo: Loree Photography

“We had to eat our way out of the BSE crisis and a lot of ranchers are just getting back to solid ground. This TB would have been the last straw if it closed our border. That is why I would be happy to be the fall guy. If they had saved all of my cows and they closed the border, how bad would that be?”

Although there are 21 states in the United States on a controlled status for TB, Osadczuk believes that not having a TB-free status would mean closed borders for the Canadian cattle industry, similar to what occurred during BSE, when he says the U.S. was not BSE-free, but still closed the border to Canada.

“There are a lot of people mad about the TB-free status in Canada, but without it, we don’t have a cattle business,” says Osadczuk.

*Over 50 farms were affected by the quarantine, most in southeastern Alberta and the remainder in Saskatchewan, with a total 11,500 animals destroyed to date and 14,000 released from the quarantine. The CFIA investigation is complex and is expected to continue for several more months. For Osadczuk, however, the results are already final. It has meant the loss of his entire herd; 1,200 cows with calves at side and 50 bulls.

Despite the loss, Osadczuk doesn’t want other producers to be scared. “I want people to really understand the very minimal risk that the disease really is. Of all the cattle tested, there were only six that tested positive for the disease, and although currently there is no vaccine available for the prevention of TB, I am confident that with the protocols in place in areas formerly affected by the quarantine, and with continued sound management practices, this incident is behind us.”

Brad Osadczuk and the family dog Arial enjoy a moment in the yard of the Osadczuk ranch. Osadczuk’s horses, dogs and cats were excluded from the destruction order, a change that was made to the regulations as a result of the recent TB event, as there has been no recorded transmission of the virus from bovine to horses, dogs or cats in CFIA recording history.
photo: Loree Photography

Osadczuk, like any good rancher, knows his cows. So when the test came back TB-positive for cow 109Y on September 22, 2017 from a slaughterhouse in the U.S., he knew exactly who she was — a home-raised heifer, even though she, like the rest of his cattle, had showed no signs or symptoms of the disease.

The last outbreak of bovine TB in Canada was an isolated incident in the Okanagan region of British Columbia, and prior to that, in 2007 in Alberta and B.C. from a bull that lived in both provinces, which led to the slaughter of almost 500 cattle.

As for the cause of TB, which has placed the small rural town of Jenner, Alta., on the map, the trail has gone cold. What initially was thought to have been spread by elk has been ruled out, as this particular strain has never been seen in Canada.

There is speculation that a bird feeding on an infected carcass in Mexico may have carried the strain with it when it migrated back to Canada.

“To think that a bird defecating on a calf and a mother cow licking it off and ingesting the virus on my ranch here in Jenner seems like incredibly bad luck,” admits Osadczuk.

Bad luck or not, those who know Osadczuk say it’s lucky TB chose a cowboy with his mettle.

“If TB had to show up, it picked the right rancher,” says Bob Lowe, chair for the Alberta Beef Producers. Lowe accompanied Osadczuk in testifying to Parliament’s Standing Committee on Agriculture to shed light on the crisis that he and his fellow ranchers were facing: thousands of unsold calves that they were unable to move or sell, no income and insurmountable feed expenses for cattle that, in the end, would need to be destroyed.

“Brad stood up for the bigger picture,” says Lowe. “A cowboy in Parliament doesn’t happen every day. He was a great voice for the industry and brought better understanding, and most of all, action.”

Lowe says that while it would typically take six to 12 months to process funding support from the AgriRecovery program, in the TB case it took only 40 days. And this funding has put Osadczuk back in a position to start over.

Starting over

Not many people actually get the chance to start over from scratch, based on what they know now versus what they knew then, but according to Osadczuk he wouldn’t and won’t change a thing.

“I like what I had done and how I had done it,” says Osadczuk.

However, what this experience has offered Osadczuk is the chance to reflect on how he has been able to pull through this crisis. He offers the following advice and insights that he feels are critical to business survival, and not just in the business of cattle.

The first might surprise some readers.

“Understand the importance of relationships,” Osadczuk says. “And make time for networking.”

Osadczuk advocates getting involved off the farm. He’s been active on various industry boards and organizations, he is a director with the Alberta Beef Producers and he also serves as a director for Bow Slope Shipping Association and for both Community Pasture Associations in his area, as well as being a councillor for Special Areas. He is also active in industry programs, including Verified Beef Plus and the McDonald’s sustainable beef project.

Brad Osadczuk traces the steps for writer Laura Laing he and other farmers are taking to climb back from their TB destruction orders. Teamwork, openness and a positive attitude will be vital.
photo: Loree Photography

Osadczuk says the support of his wife Elaine, as well as other industry peers, pulled him through the darker days of the TB crisis.

Next, Osadczuk says, “Pick the right partners. Know your customers, and let them know you.”

When Osadczuk decided to jump into ranching full time, he made a point of driving to each and every one of the buyers of his cattle as he felt that getting to know his customers and letting them get to know him was critical to his operation and bottom line. These relationships resulted in non-stop phone calls of support when the TB news hit.

“Every auction mart that I have ever sold or bought cattle from and with, the breed associations, Alberta Beef Producers… I was flooded with support,” Osadczuk says.

“Get after the business of your business.”

One of the mistakes he feels a lot of people make is in thinking that their job is to do the chores or “pound the posts.” Osadczuk has the philosophy of spending time in the areas of what is going to make money, always asking himself the question: “Can I make more money by getting out there and taking care of my business and having someone that needs the job do the chore tasks, while I can be getting out in the industry, rolling every rock over and learning new ways of doing things, fostering relationships, and marketing my cattle?”

Then, Osadczuk says, “Be transparent and live your business in the bigger picture.”

Osadczuk says that when the CFIA told him he needed to figure out what he would tell his neighbours when their trucks pulled into the yard, he says there was simply nothing to figure out. For him, transparency is the only way to do business.

“We are all in this together; this isn’t about my herd. This is about my neighbour’s herd, their neighbour’s herd and the welfare of the industry as a whole,” says Osadczuk.

“Rally support when needed,” Osadczuk then says. “Take a team approach.”

Osadczuk was quick to rally with those also affected by the TB quarantine. He, along with 18 producers also on the destruction order, got together immediately at the local community rink and made the easy decision to work together and navigate through the crisis, forming three boards: one for legal, one for compensation and another board for media. This resulted in one voice and the ability to negotiate and achieve action more quickly.

According to Osadczuk, although not everyone is bouncing back at the same speed, the healing has begun for those affected by the quarantine and destruction ruling.

“Love what you do and take one day at a time,” he also says.

Osadczuk says having a genuine love for what you do is what will carry you through the tough times. But keep balanced. He found it’s important not to look too far into the future or you can get overwhelmed and discouraged.

That’s advice Osadczuk says he will take himself as he starts the process of cleaning and disinfecting his facility to meet the requirements of CFIA, re-building his herd and getting back to the business of what he loves — cattle.

So, has this whole episode made him more worried? “Not even a bit,” Osadczuk says. “It’s what I love to do. I believe in what we do and I wouldn’t change a thing.”


AgriRecovery*

The AgriRecovery Framework is part of a suite of federal-provincial-territorial (FPT) business risk management (BRM) tools under Growing Forward 2. AgriRecovery is an FPT disaster relief framework intended to work together with the core BRM programs to help agricultural producers recover from natural disasters.

The focus of AgriRecovery is the extraordinary costs producers must take on to recover from disasters. Extraordinary costs are costs which producers would not incur under normal circumstances, but which are necessary to mitigate the impacts of a disaster and/or resume farming operations as quickly as possible following a disaster. Further, AgriRecovery is intended to respond in situations where producers do not have the capacity to cover the extraordinary costs, even with the assistance available from other programs.

Natural disasters which may be considered under AgriRecovery are those resulting from a disease, pest or weather-related event, such as flooding or a tornado. Events which are cyclical, such as pricing cycles, or part of a long-term trend, such as a change in markets, cannot be considered under AgriRecovery.

*Reference Agriculture and Agri Food Canada

*[Update included a correction to the number of farms affected by the quarantine and the number of cattle destroyed]

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