Sask. ranchers urged to test water after mass cattle deaths

The Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association is encouraging ranchers to test the water in their dugouts, after hundreds of cattle died and fell ill in a grazing pasture near Shamrock, Sask.

Ranchers can learn from this tragedy to prevent future ones, Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association says

Just days before their death, the cattle were moved to a new plot of Shamrock Grazing Ltd. pasture land and last checked on July 2. The dead and ill cattle were discovered five days later. (Kendall Latimer/CBC)

The Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association is encouraging ranchers to test the water in their dugouts, after hundreds of cattle died and fell ill in a grazing pasture near Shamrock, Sask., this month.

Tests are still underway to determine what led to that loss of life.

Saskatchewan's chief veterinary officer, Betty Althouse, is waiting on post-mortem test results. However, it's likely that dehydration due to concentrated salt in the water killed the calves and cows, she said Monday.

The Ministry of Agriculture gathered samples from the dugout that was the dead cattle's water source and will release the results once they are ready.

In light of the recent fatalities — and the scorching, dry weather — local ranchers should exercise extra caution, said Chad MacPherson.

He's the general manager of the Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association, which educates and advocates for people in the province's beef industry.

"The current conditions are kind of a perfect storm," he said.

"[There] wasn't a lot of spring run-off to dilute the ponds and then there's been a lot of evaporation, no precipitation, so the different salts and different things are accumulating in higher concentrations."

More than 30 ranchers are shareholders in with Shamrock Grazing Ltd. and pay a fee for it to manage their livestock's access to food and water over the summer. They've been helping tend to the surviving cattle. (Angela Johnston/CBC)

This health hazard hasn't been talked about as much as some others have, MacPherson said.

"People have been kind of aware of blue-green algae blooms," he said. "The salt situation is kind of an emerging one." 

He said there isn't a concrete rule for how often people should check their animals or their dugouts, but the organization is urging ranchers to do so more frequently. 

MacPherson said people can call the province's Agriculture Knowledge Centre if they have questions about water testing or concerns about their land.

Producers can pick up water-testing jugs and jars from the Ministry of Agriculture regional offices or directly from a lab. Some RM offices carry them too,  but it's recommended people call ahead to make sure they're in stock, he said. 

Basic tests cost $34.75 at the Saskatchewan Water Lab. The testing is also available at other businesses.

'It was an accident': Shamrock president

The scene of rotting carcasses and dying cows spread about the pasture is one that has stuck with Shamrock Grazing Ltd. president Glenn Straub. 

"Anybody that loves a cow don't want to see that," he said Tuesday.

Shamrock Grazing operates the pasture where the cattle were found dead. It leases Crown land from the province and charges ranchers to oversee grazing and water access over the summer.

Glenn Straub, president of Shamrock Grazing Ltd., denied allegations of neglect and said the deaths were an accident. (Kendall Latimer/CBC)

Straub is waiting on the test results, but still shared advice for others. 

"In this type of conditions, test your water. Watch your pastures. Maybe in these conditions, maybe there is weeds that are poisonous. We don't know that," he said. 

Just days before the cattle died, they were moved to a new grazing pasture and were last checked on July 2. The hundreds of dead and ill cattle were found July 7.

Animal protection officers are investigating to see if the cattle died from neglect and RCMP are assisiting with the investigation. The case has been called "complex," as it deals with the quality of water rather than its existence. 

On Tuesday, Straub denied allegations of neglect. 

"They were in a pasture. There was water available to them," he said. "It was an accident."

A Livestock Water Quality Guide put out by the Ministry of Agriculture said high levels of sodium intake for prolonged periods of time can produce a range of symptoms for cattle.

That includes "gastrointestinal irritation with vomiting, diarrhea, mucoid feces, abdominal pain, anorexia, thirst, salvation and polyuria."

It can also produce nervous system effects, including "knuckling, blindness, muscular spasms, paresis and convulsions."