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Controlling Johne’s disease in Alberta’s dairy cattle


Calgary, AB – Johne’s disease is an infectious disease that costs the Canadian cattle industry at least $90 million a year in lost production and animal deaths. A voluntary program run by researchers at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Calgary, together with Alberta Milk (the organization that represents dairy farmers in the province) is now trying to reach out to Alberta dairy farmers to help control the disease.

Johne’s (pronounced yo-nee’s) disease in cattle is caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium avium subsp. paratuberculosis (MAP). MAP infects the intestinal tract, preventing the absorption of nutrients and leading to chronic diarrhea and subsequent loss of body condition in spite of a normal appetite. Johne’s is difficult to diagnose, has no treatment or vaccine and is usually fatal. At least 50 per cent of dairy herds contain infected cattle.

“Farmers are busy,” says Herman Barkema, who leads the Alberta Johne’s Disease Initiative and is head of the department of production animal health in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. “You have different ways that farmers take up information and so we are trying to find out the best way to reach them.”

Working with Alberta Milk, Barkema says the researchers will try to reach every dairy farm in Alberta to conduct a Johne’s disease risk assessment to help identify management practices on the farm that create, or increase the risk that MAP poses to the herd. Then, the farmer and veterinarian work together to develop a farm specific Johne’s disease management plan. Collecting manure samples will help determine the prevalence of MAP infection across the province.

Since the initiative began two years ago, half of the province’s 584 dairy farmers have gone through the steps.