In accounts of pioneer experiences where cattle and horses were brought in from outside, two causes of heavy loss were often mentioned — “hoof rot” and “swamp fever”. We questioned Mr. Joe Henderson about them, for he had rendered the only veterinary service in the area for many years. A “practical” rather than a certified professional veterinarian, he had learned a great deal from his father, a noted veterinarian and horseman of Saskatoon.
Mr. Henderson described “swamp fever” as a condition in which the animal’s condition slowly deteriorated, until it ended in a slow death. There was no known cure. It was more prevalent in the Alberta Peace, especially around Grouard and Lesser Slave Lake where there was much swampy, soggy land and “slough grass”. The drier prairies from Grande Prairie west were relatively free of it.
“Hoof rot”, the other serious cause of loss, is still with us. In fact the Health of Animals Branch of the Department of Agriculture advised us that it has been more prevalent in the BC Peace in 1975 than for many years. Numberless horses and some cows had to be destroyed on all of the old trails — Athabasca, Edson, Peace River, etc. There were seemingly endless miles of muskeg on these trails, held by some to be responsible for the condition. But Mr. George Hunter tells of its occurrence at Fort Nelson. Mr. Henderson believes that it is caused by an organism that clings to grass, and enters the foot through small injuries.
In the anatomy of the horse or cow the hoof corresponds to the human fingernail. In hoof-rot the hard, outer protective “shell” cracks and splits, the inner soft tissues swell and the animal is unable to feed.
Mr. Henderson has known cases where, in three days if not attended, the hoof became completely detached. In such cases the animal must be destroyed for it would starve. It is easy to see how long immersion could so render the tissues unhealthy as to permit easy penetration of organisms that were always present. It also explains why, after a forest fire that swept over much of the area both swamp fever and hoof rot were reported to almost to disappear for a long time.
Mr. Henderson said that prompt attention to farm animals can check the condition — cleaning out around the soft tissues, trimming the hoof, etc. Bluestone or copper sulfate was the usual disinfectant. Some applied pine tar to keep insects from laying eggs in the sores. With rest, and care and luck a not too infected hoof might heal. The big-footed Clydesdales, Percherons and Belgians were said to be more susceptible than the mustang-type animal so useful in pack trains.
“Black water fever” occurred when anything affected the kidneys so that they could not function. Without attention death came soon and painfully. Application of heat over the kidneys and a drench of linseed oil and turpentine were pioneer treatment that sometimes worked.
It has been said that animals that had been conditioned by spending a season in the bush around Edmonton or Northern Saskatchewan were less prone to the above conditions than those shipped directly from the dry prairies. Did they acquire immunity?
Other ranchers have told us that frozen feed was the cause of severe losses. Prairie grass — sometimes known as “prairie wool” — ripens before frost, and enters winter dry and naturally “cured”, whereas northern grasses generally stay green and succulent until hard frost, except on dry exposed hillsides. The Health of Animals Branch advises that where frozen feed is the sole forage, where animals had to “rustle”, it might lack enough nutrition to maintain the animal. New settlers from the prairies being unaware of the condition, or having had too little time to put in a crop for feed, might suffer heavy losses during the first year or so — enough to wipe put the enterprise.
Mr. Bentley says that different breeds of cattle reacted differently to frozen feed. He had had no trouble with Aberdeen Angus.
The late R. D. Symons also had Aberdeen Angus, but he wanted some qualities in his herd that Angus and other breeds lacked. Cow’s cloven hooves were not made for pawing down through snow to grass, as horses’ are. When the most luxuriant grass, sun ripened on south facing hills, was covered with snow, domestic cattle would not push their noses into the snow to get it. It might as well not be there. The West Highland cattle of Scotland, on the other hand, were conditioned on range or rough country and “eat heather and mist”. Symons surmised that their crossbred progeny would also supplement winter range feed by browsing. The Highlands also had “hair like a doormat. Cold winds mean nothing to them”. They needed less feed to maintain body heat. They had long, curved horns, too — no detriment to range cattle that had wolves, bears and the occasional cougar to fend off. They were chunky and their progeny should flesh up fast. Symons introduced three young bulls from Jim Lindsay’s herd at Lloydminster, and was satisfied with the results. He would have imported more, except that World War II stopped the importation of livestock.
Other Peace Country ranchers were not convinced. Mr. Bentley, Sr. remembers the Symons cattle with scorn. “They were the smallest shipped from around here”, he scoffed this year. (1975). Mr. Bentley preferred the show-type Angus. Every man to his own taste. Symons was breeding for beef and hardiness and good bones — not show. Others are now trying similar experiments.
Brucellosis seems to have entered the country when the government sponsored the introduction of purebred sires for upgrading cattle in the 1930’s. Later the BC government sent in a veterinarian who pinpointed the source and later initiated a testing program which checked the disease.
Rabies was epidemic in the early 1950’s. Reportedly it worked south from the Arctic, where imported dogs brought it to the huskies, from which it spread to wolves, foxes and eventually to all kinds of animals. A full-scale inoculation of domestic animals and wholesale poisoning of predators checked it. In 1975 the Health of Animals Branch in Dawson Creek reported that, in the Peace, only one case was encountered, and that in a bat. Bats are now known to be the most-feared carriers, and in 1975 they are reported to be present in larger than usual numbers. This must be watched.
In the recent past, anthrax was reported in the bison of Wood Buffalo Park. Modern technology seems to have averted the threat to domestic herds. “Shooting” the bison from airplanes with vaccines was reported.
Warble control was another government program for the benefits of ranchers.
Until an effective remedy was found, bats were an early cause of death among horses.
Possibly the mosquitoes and black flies are the most prevalent “predators” today. With the clearing and draining of land, the clouds of pests are less dense than we remember them in the mid-thirties, but animal that are harassed fail to make the best use of their feed, which add to the cost per pound of production. The old-fashioned “smudge” is still in use for farm- pastured animals.