Feedlot people: meet a cattle feedlot veterinarian

This is the first post in our Feedlot people series, and this week we’re meeting veterinarian Joyce Van Donkersgoed, the owner of Alberta Beef Health Solutions, in Picture Butte, Alberta.

Joyce grew up in southern Alberta, on a farm just east of Coaldale. Her parents ran a cow calf feedlot and hay/grain operation, and before that a dairy herd, so she grew up as immersed in the cattle world as is possible!

“When I was 12 years old I made my mind up I wanted to be a cow vet”, said Joyce, and she never waivered from that ambition. She trained as a veterinarian at the University of Saskatchewan, and later returned to complete her masters in veterinary science, with a clinical residency in beef cattle production medicine and epidemiology.

Helping discover better ways to care for cattle

Joyce van Donkersgoed

Today Joyce is well known in the industry as a teacher, author and researcher. In fact she collaborated on the Feedlot Animal Care Assessment Program (pdf), which we wrote about in last week’s blog post: New assessment tool to audit feedlot animal care.

“I love research because I love solving problems,” said Joyce. “We’re always trying to help our clients find better ways to do things, whether it’s a new vaccine, a better antibiotic or feed additive, or how we handle cattle. I’ve also been involved in building a lot of industry programs and training programs over the years. It’s a great feeling when you see your hard work pay off — when you’ve got through to someone, you’ve trained someone and they get it, and then they’re better at their job and the cattle are being better cared for.”

But research will always be a relatively small part of how Joyce spends her days. “I still go in the field,” she said. “It’s important to walk the walk because it’s hard for me to train staff or help my clients if I don’t understand what’s going on in the yard, and the only way I can do that is if I actually get dirty. I still do my share of calls.”

Over the years Joyce has found herself branching out from cattle, as one of her clients has a lamb feedlot and a ewe operation, but cattle will always be her passion. 

Joyce — a self-confessed workaholic — doesn’t have a great deal of free time, but what she does have is spent caring for her ageing parents, mowing her six acres of grass and enjoying her two chocolate labs. “I bought a piece of my Dad’s farm so that I could live close and they can still live in their own house. And my Dad can still get on his John Deere tractor, even though he probably shouldn’t, because he’s 89!”

Stay tuned for upcoming posts when we will meet more of the people of Alberta’s cattle feedlots.

Are feedlot operators prepared for an emergency?

In any industry there are two types of emergency – those that affect a single operator, and those that affect the entire sector. While the first can be devastating for the business involved, the second can have serious consequences for an entire industry, and for its contribution to the Canadian economy.

That’s why Alberta’s feedlot operators have produced a Feedlot Emergency Preparedness Plan. It’s a comprehensive tool to help cattle feeders prepare for, and respond to, an emergency that causes widespread losses across the cattle feeding industry.

To learn more about the tool, we spoke with Matt Taylor, of Livestock Intelligence. Matt is a specialist in animal health emergency management and consults on animal health systems and the broader livestock industry, and he coordinated the development of the tool.

Here’s what Matt told us:

Q: Why do feedlot operators need to prepare for a disease outbreak?

Matt: The tool was developed in response to a long-held feeling that, even though feedlot producers have done their best to protect against potential risks, they were not protected against the possibility of a major event impacting the sector as a whole. The goal is to give feedlot operators and their staff a tool that allows them to better prepare for such an eventuality. In reality, any such emergency will most likely be a disease outbreak, so that is the focus of the plan.

Q: How was the tool developed?

Matt: The first step was to form a steering committee to guide the process — a group of ‘gurus’ if you will — including people with knowledge of the veterinary profession as feedlot practitioners and from a regulatory perspective, emergency management professionals, and representatives from various service aspects and other segments of the industry itself, like Alberta Beef Producers and Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.

Then we identified the key activities that operators were going to be involved in, while the sector was being ‘hit’ by a major disease outbreak — everything from identifying something unusual and responding to that unusual event, and receiving confirmation from CFIA or Alberta Agriculture of a major foreign animal disease event, through to containment, stopping cattle movement, vaccination, depopulation and more. Then we just identified the steps involved in doing those activities at the feedlot. 

One of the last steps was quite significant actually, as it hadn’t been done in Canada’s beef sector before – we did a simulation exercise, with participation from CFIA, Alberta Agriculture, and Alberta’s Emergency Management Agency, testing these guidelines in scenarios that were as real as we could make them, in order to see where we needed to make some final revisions.

Q: Has the tool been tested in a real life emergency?

Matt: That’s part of the problem! When an event never happens, people often wonder why they should prepare for it. Canada’s beef industry has been very fortunate in not having had a major disease outbreak with sector wide impacts — not withstanding our experience with BSE, which has been significant. But BSE is a very atypical disease that doesn’t ‘spread’ or have ‘operational’ impacts upon a multitude of operations, though it certainly had widespread financial impacts.

Other sectors of Canada’s livestock industry have had major disease outbreaks that affected the whole sector – for instance PED and circovirus in the swine industry, and Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) in the poultry industry. But the reality is that there are diseases capable of having a much greater impact on Canada’s beef industry than any of these, or BSE. We know that, from observation of foot and mouth outbreaks in the UK and elsewhere.

So the short answer is: no, we’ve not tested these particular guidelines in a real-life outbreak. Hopefully we don’t have to. However, a few fire drills, a few false calls, would be a good thing so we could test our capacity to respond effectively. The task now is to steadily improve our guidelines so feedlot operators know how to respond effectively and are prepared to do so.

To learn about other initiatives spearheaded by the ACFA, check out these blog posts:

New assessment tool to audit feedlot animal care

Last week on this blog, we talked about the fact that cattle feeders are committed to high standards of animal care – we explained that it’s both good business sense, and the right thing to do. We also explained why it’s not enough for individual feedlot operators to know that their standards are high: Read more

3 things you should know about Canadian beef

The availability of certified humane beef has been a hot topic in the last few days, and that’s not a discussion we plan to wade into here. But if the debate has got you wondering about animal husbandry practices — as they pertain to beef — we’ve got answers for you.

Read more