"I had been aware of a national cattle herd health program in the United States," says John Campbell, principal researcher for the project and head of the Western College of Veterinary Medicine's (WCVM) Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences. "I thought it would be beneficial to have something similar here in Canada."
About 120 cow-calf herds in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, where about 80 per cent of Canada's beef cattle herd is located, are participating in the survey series that begins this year.
Participating producers were recruited primarily through local veterinarians with the goal of gaining a representative sample of Western Canada's cow herd in terms of geography, breeds and herd sizes, Campbell says.
"Producers get more than enough surveys already. To get stronger and deeper data that's backed up by actual records producers are keeping, we needed to establish this network." says Reynold Bergen, science director for the BCRC. The industry-led funding agency identifies research and development priorities for Canada's beef cattle industry
Participants will complete three to four surveys a year relating to health, productivity, welfare, nutrition and biosecurity, along with routine biological sampling.
"We're dealing with producers doing things the way other people should be emulating since we need to work with herds that are keeping good records," says Bergen.
The concept of the broad surveillance program came from the BCRC's findings after surveying 25 beef research funders in Canada.
Bergen says their survey determined large differences between funded research in the cow-calf and feedlot sectors.
"Nearly all of the feedlot research was focused on respiratory disease. They knew what their problem was."
But the issues on the cow-calf side were not as clearly defined. As much as three-quarters of the funding was dedicated to Johne's disease and predation with the small remainder divided between calf loss and reproduction.
"Maybe our priorities aren't where they should be," Bergen says. "Better on-the-ground information will help us to focus our animal health and welfare research priorities more appropriately."
Campbell says the reproductive success of participating herds might be one of the most beneficial statistics to uncover. He also lists parasites and emerging diseases as major topics of interest.
A better understanding of disease prevalence in Canada could also be very beneficial for getting ahead of issues that may affect trade, Bergen says.
"We're going to be looking for issues that might be associated with emerging diseases," Campbell says. "It's really about getting a good idea of what the current state of the industry is."
Through collaboration with local veterinarians, the group hopes to create a "serum bank" of blood or fecal samples collected and analyzed from the participating herds.
"This would be a living laboratory," Campbell says," and hopefully the foundation for a surveillance network. It could help provide answers to a variety of emerging research questions."
Though similar investigations have been done to measure specific issues in cow-calf production, this particular study is unique in its broad scope.
"The long-term aim of this research is to firmly establish the value of this kind of information," Bergen says. "So down the road, if we can establish a nationwide surveillance program, that would be of considerable value."
Along with Campbell, researchers involved in the project include the WCVM's Drs. Cheryl Waldner, Murray Jelinski, Joe Stookey and Greg Penner as well as Dr. Eugene Janzen of the University of Calgary's Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.
Campbell says the results will be shared with not only participants, but with cow-calf producers who could benefit from the information.
"We want to get that information out to the industry as quickly as possible."
Rosie Templeton grew up on a Hereford cattle ranch and grain farm near Coaldale, Alberta. She is studying Agricultural Communications and Agribusiness at Oklahoma State University. She can be found on Twitter @rotempleton.