MILLET, Alberta - Fifteen years ago, Allan Minchau quit his job selling advertising for a farm newspaper, bought his father's ranch on a stretch of prairie southwest of Edmonton, and took his wife and family into the cattle business full time.
Yesterday, the 49-year-old cowboy and his daughters saddled up to move some cows to a fresh pasture, then rode back to their modest frame ranch house. In the barnyard he tied up his horse, shed chaps and a sweat-stained hat, and sat down in the kitchen for a glass of iced tea.
Yes, he said, he'd made the right decision. Beef markets in the United States have opened up to Canadian producers, cattle production throughout the province has soared, and his family has prospered.
"We started here with about 160 acres, and it's now up to about 1,000," he said. "The cows, we've expanded from 50 to approximately 225."
But everything the Minchaus have built is now in peril because one scrawny cow hundreds of miles northwest of this ranch - one cow among 5.5 million in Alberta - was found last week to have suffered from "mad cow" disease, a brain-wasting illness transmitted by contaminated feed. In rare instances, meat products from affected cattle can carry the fatal illness to humans.
The sick cow was slaughtered in January, and its carcass never reached the human food chain. Even so, the United States closed its border to Canadian beef Tuesday as a precaution. Meanwhile, the Canadian market shut down until authorities can track down the source of the illness and determine whether any other cattle were infected.
If the border doesn't reopen in a matter of months, or if prices drop too low, families throughout the province will face hard times at best and ruin at worst.
"If it's a year, we probably won't be in the cattle business. I'll be back working in town," Minchau said.
Canadian officials quarantined three more farms yesterday, bringing the total to 16 in Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia.
Across Canada, cattle producers, feedlot operators, packinghouses - and all the merchants and suppliers who depend on them - are waiting anxiously for test results on more than 200 other cattle from the herd that contained the lone sick cow. News of more infected cattle will surely make the crisis drag on.
Canada is the world's 10th-largest beef producer. Growing, servicing and processing the country's 13 million head of cattle accounts for $19 billion in the Canadian economy. Last year, the country exported 1.1 billion pounds of beef to the United States - about 78 percent of its production - and the numbers have been growing.
In Alberta, the cattle industry is second only to oil and natural gas. The province's 35,000 producers have 5.5 million head in their herds, almost 40 percent of the country's total. Last year Alberta's beef industry processed 2.3 million head, with exports valued at $1.23 billion, including $950 million to the United States.
This part of the province is flat prairie with stands of spruce and birch. The birches are coming into leaf now, two weeks after the last snow. The pastures are green, and the rest of the land is freshly plowed - planted in oats, barley and other grains and grasses used for cattle feed.
"It's not beautiful land; I'd like to be closer to the mountains," said Minchau as he and his daughters - Lacy, 17 and Allana, 14 - took a visitor on a pickup tour of their spread. "But it's good for growing cattle."
Lacy Minchau said she and her sister help out "as much as we can. We've been on horseback since we were babies."
The girls have a real stake in the place. Lacy Minchau owns 20 cows; Allana Minchau owns 16. Instead of a savings account for college, they look after their cows, sell the calves and use part of the proceeds to buy more cows.
Lacy Minchau hopes to start college next year. At last week's prices, she might have figured her 20 cattle were worth about $1,200 each, or $24,000 toward tuition. But if the demand for Canadian beef falls, and cattle prices collapse, her animals might bring $6,000, her father said, if they can be sold at all.
"I'm really worried about that," Lacy Minchau said. "I really want to get an education. I don't want to work with cattle all my life."
Allan Minchau said Alberta's cattlemen are accustomed to ups and downs. Last year was the driest here in 133 years, and that bad season came on the heels of more dry years. Feed was scarce and expensive, cutting into profits. Plenty of producers had to sell their herds.
"We lost money," Minchau said. But savings and a strong market in the States kept it from becoming a disaster.
With more snow and rain this winter, cattle prices were higher and it was shaping up to be a much-needed good year. Then, on Tuesday, came news of mad cow disease in northwestern Alberta.
"Short-term, it won't affect us because we don't move our calves [to market] until fall," Minchau said. But he added, "if the border stays closed long-term, it will be disastrous."