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This summer's symposium will focus on bison health and disease. Photo: Michael Raine.

International symposium targets bison health

The First International Symposium on Bison Health, to be held in Saskatoon from June 24-26, will offer attendees presentations from local, national and international bison experts as well as a tour of the University of Saskatchewan's Specialized Livestock Facility.

With its primary focus on bison health and disease, this symposium will address a deficit that exists in the industry, says Dr. Murray Woodbury, chair of the symposium's organizing committee. He's also an associate professor and Chair of Specialized Livestock Research and Development at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM).

Bison industry conferences typically provide presentations on marketing, product development, day-to-day management and the business aspects of bison farming, but Woodbury points out that most meetings offer very little information on managing the health of bison.

In addition, the rapidly-growing bison industry is still relatively small, and many veterinarians aren't familiar with the species, its diseases and important aspects of bison farming.

"So this is one way of bringing our [veterinary] profession up to speed," says Woodbury. He adds that bison producers are welcome to attend the event and learn more about diseases, disease prevention and the promotion of bison herd health.

The symposium's program includes presentations on viral diseases such as bovine viral diarrhea and malignant catarrhal fever (MCF), bacterial diseases such as tuberculosis and respiratory disease. Presenters will also cover reproduction technology, nutrition and mineral programs as well as preventive programs, therapeutics and rational treatment of bison disease.

Featured speakers include Dr. Donal O'Toole, a veterinary pathologist and MCF researcher at the University of Wyoming; James Derr of Texas A&M University who works on genome sequencing of African wildlife species and North American bison; and Dr. Hana Van Campen, a retired professor of microbiology at Colorado State University whose research focus is viral diseases.

There are about 500,000 bison in North America today, and an increased interest in bison as a healthy red meat source has been a plus for the industry. Raised without growth hormones, steroids, drugs or chemical residue, bison meat has one-third less fat than beef. Bison are traditionally raised and often finished in a grass-fed, organic manner, says Woodbury, "so their fatty acid profiles are naturally healthy."

At the same time, he says farmed bison numbers aren't building as quickly as they might. With carcass prices so high, the temptation is strong for producers to sell animals for food that otherwise would be used to increase their herds.

Although Woodbury anticipates that most of the symposium's attendees will be from North America, it may attract visitors from other continents since bison are farmed in New Zealand as well as in Sweden, Belgium and other European countries.

Holding the first bison health symposium in Saskatoon is fitting, says Woodbury. "The Western College of Veterinary Medicine is a centre of excellence for multiple species and we hope to be the go-to people for bison health."

The U of S Specialized Livestock Facility at Floral, Sask., was created about 15 years ago when the Canada-Saskatchewan Agri-Food Innovation Fund gave the university an endowment to create a research chair for the province's diversified livestock interests — including bison, deer and elk.

As research chair, part of Woodbury's mandate is to speak at conferences, consult with producers and veterinarians, and help to organize meetings and conferences such as the bison health symposium.

Visit www.bisonhealth.ca for more information about the symposium's program and speakers.


Shirley Byers is a writer and editor from Kelvington, Sask. She freelances for a variety of North American magazines and newspapers.
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