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It’s a great time to be in the cattle business

During last week’s Summer Cattle Industry Conference in Dallas, Texas, spirits were high, as beef demand is up, prices are up, and there is profitability in the cattle business. Mike Miller with CattleFax told me he believes that for stocker operators, feedlot operators, and cow-calf producers, the profits in 2003 should be some of the best they’ve seen in the last 10 years.

It’s a good time to be in the cattle business. . . that is if you are not a Canadian cattle producer.
When will the borders open for Canadian beef and cattle to enter the markets? Speculation is that the borders will first open to beef, and then to cattle.

Most producers I have talked with said that if it was just between the industries, we could have figured it out by now. 31 borders are closed to Canada. Best case scenario is that all of these borders open at the same time to Canadian beef, alleviating pressure that would mount on any one trading partner. This is a single opportunity for us to set the protocol for any country to re-enter the market after such an incident. Protocol must be based on facts, science, and risk, and there must be agreement with all international trading partners that this is “the accepted protocol.”

There are countries that have attempted to turn this into a trade issue instead of a food safety or health issue. Thank goodness our USDA has been working with Canadian counterparts and listening to the industry on this matter. Whatever protocol is developed through this braintrust, we need to be well aware that we could have to live with those same restrictions should we ever have a case of BSE here in the USA.

This single, isolated incidence of Bovine spongiform encephalopathy has caused many U.S. producers to stop and think about a national identification system. Without some sort of national animal identification system, I have to wonder what sort of an impact an isolated case of BSE would have on the U.S. cattle industry.

John Maas, cattle producer and extension veterinarian at the University of California Davis, who serves on a committee that is investigating animal ID systems, says finding the right system will be challenging. “No system will be foolproof. We need to come up with ear tags or other mechanisms that stay in the animal and either can’t get removed or don’t get removed.” Maas says now is the time for producers to speak up about the type of sytem they want to see implemented, not only in terms of the methods and devices, but also cost, liability and confidentiality.

I have heard many people say they do not want a national i.d. system because they do not want the government to know everything about them and their operation. According to Tyler Brown with Global Animal Management, Inc., confidentiality in an animal identification system could be easily implemented. In South America, Tyler added, many ranchers have started to use a bolus that stays in the animal’s rumen, because rustlers will cut out ear tags. Sort of like a computer chip in a pet’s ear.

In my opinion, once we have established a national animal identification system for health and food safety reasons, establishing a program for Country of Origin Labeling should be a piece of cake. I’ve heard so many different opinions regarding COOL that my head is spinning. The bottom line however, is that on September 30, 2004, funded or not, it becomes law.

I caught up with Eric Davis, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, while in Dallas last week, and asked him “How realistic is it that you and I, as beef cattle producers, can be prepared and in compliance with the Country of Origin Law as it is perceived at this point?”
The Idaho cattleman replied “I think it is realistic. People talk about the audit system, and I think to some degree we are stampeding ourselves with how difficult it is going to be to comply. I agree with a lot of other folks that it doesn’t need to be quite as complicated as it appears to be. I don’t think that is anyone’s intent. But whatever we end up with, it will be law, and we’ll figure out how to do it.”
NCBA’s policy supports voluntary Country of Origin Labeling.

As I think back to a time immediately following passage of the last Farm Bill, when farmers were signing up for programs in that new law, many shared their frustration and confusion over the implementation with me. One state Farm Service Agency executive said almost verbatim what Eric Davis had said to me, but instead of talking about COOL, he was referring to the newest farm programs.

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