Ranchers: Beef is safe

Area consumers don't seem concerned with mad cow

Fears of mad cow disease hit a little closer to home last week -- in Washington, to be precise. While Americans were wrapping gifts and cooking holiday feasts, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was tossed into the throes of an in-depth investigation of a single infected dairy cow that marked the United States' first confirmed case of the brain-wasting disease.

One might imagine the finding worried Routt County's ranchers and their annual $18 million cattle business. But not Jo Stanko, rancher and president of Colorado CattleWomen Inc.

"I think ranchers are basically an optimistic group. We didn't spend a lot of time fretting about it," Stanko said. "My first instinct is to feel empathy for the poor man in Washington who had this cow in his herd."

Stanko said she remains dedicated to the fact that American beef is safe for consumption, echoing the words of Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and local ranchers.

"I, personally, do not hesitate to recommend to anyone that beef is absolutely safe to eat," Veneman stated in a press release. She said that even though risks to human health are minimal, abundant caution is being taken to ensure the safety of beef in the United States.

"We know that our product is safe," said Marsha Daughenbaugh, a cattle rancher and executive director of the Community Agriculture Alliance.

And consumers in the area don't seem too worried, either.

"We've sold a lot of beef," Steamboat Meat & Seafood Co. owner Bill Hamil said. He said no one shopping in his market has even asked him about mad cow disease.

Daughenbaugh pointed out that sick, staggering cows Americans have seen on television are not the infected Holstein from Washington; that cow already went to slaughter, which is how officials were able to diagnose its disease. She said the good news is that the system the United States has in place works well.

Any impact on Routt County ranchers remains to be seen in the weeks and months ahead. Colorado's major slaughterhouses were closed during the holidays and trading will resume Monday.

Tom Keller of Three State Feeders, a Wiggins feed lot operation based in Steamboat Springs, said Friday that the price for finish cattle had declined 22 percent since the initial announcement of mad cow disease and that the price of calves had dropped 16 percent. Futures for cattle bottomed out for three days last week, but leveled off and resumed Friday.

Still, Keller said there were too many variables to determine what might happen when Routt County ranchers try to sell their calves next year. Most of the cattle left in Routt County are pregnant cows. Any others have been held for the Stock Show sale next week, Routt County Extension agent CJ Mucklow said.

"We don't know the impact on ranching here yet," Mucklow said. "Nobody senses panic. It was just bad news to have the year end on."

The USDA now knows that Washington's lone infected cow was a 6 1/2-year-old Holstein imported from Canada in 2001. The cow was part of an approximately 4,000-cow dairy operation before it was sent to slaughter. Because the cow was a "downer" -- meaning it could not walk -- samples from the animal's brain and spinal tissue were sent to the National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, for routine testing. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE, commonly known as mad cow disease, was diagnosed in the lab's initial test results. Veterinary pathologists at a laboratory in Waybridge, England, confirmed the positive BSE results a few days later.

In the United Kingdom, mad cow disease has been linked to causing a variant form of the fatal Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans who eat central nervous system tissues, such as the brain and spinal cord, from an infected animal. These aren't parts most Americans eat, Daughenbaugh said.

If beef prices continue to plummet in the short term, Yampa Valley's three-wire winters might be a blessing for ranchers.

Routt County's abundance of snow means breeding programs are not generally designed to winter many cattle in Yampa Valley. Most of the local cattle went to market long before the USDA's announcement, Daughenbaugh said.

"On the selfish aspect, I'm glad mine were already sold," Stanko said, referring to this year's sale of the calves from her family's cow-calf operation, long before the Dec. 23 announcement.

Beef prices were at a record high this fall after years of low prices and drought that pushed many Colorado ranchers to sell off their herds.

"People were so pleased to have the opportunity to sell this fall," Daughenbaugh said.

According to the Colorado Cattlemen's Association, there are more than 3.2 million head of cattle and 10,000 beef producers in Colorado, making it the nation's 10th largest cattle producing state. The Colorado Department of Agriculture placed a ban on Washington cattle the day of the USDA's announcement but lifted the ban the following day.

"All the meat (from the Washington cow) has been recalled. It has no impact on local meat," Daughenbaugh said.

Stanko said the most important thing for local ranchers is to keep on the issue as events unfold.

"It's about being educated," she said. "And Routt County ranchers are an educated bunch."

She added that most ranchers already acquire cattle locally. After the Washington scare, she said Routt County ranchers probably would buy local cattle more than ever.

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