By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
The discovery of a cow with mad cow disease in Washington in December hasn't had much impact on local ranching operations, ranchers say, but they caution that things could change in the future.
Jody Manuel, who ranches south of Havre, said that since he sells his cattle in the fall, he won't know the effect until then.
"From what I hear, calf prices are still high, cow prices are still good. It might just make people think more about where they get their beef," he said.
The brain-wasting disease called bovine spongiform encepholathy, or mad cow disease, was first found in Britain in 1986. Scientists believe the disease is spread through cattle feed made with brain and spinal cord tissue from infected cows.
They also believe people can contract a similar fatal disease - variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease - when they eat meat from cattle infected with BSE.
The December discovery was the first case of BSE in the United States. A case was confirmed in a cow in Alberta last April.
The only other confirmed case in North America was in a cow in Canada in 1993. That animal was born in Britain, Canadian officials said.
The United States has banned the feeding of high-risk cattle parts, as well as chicken waste, restaurant scraps and blood products - to other cattle.
Vicky Toth, who ranches in the Bear Paws south of Havre, said the discovery hasn't impacted her operation. She said she doesn't know what she could change in the operation of her ranch because of the discovery anyway.
What happens in the future depends on whether more cases are found and how the news media covers the December discovery, she said.
"I suspect that it mainly depends on whether they find any more and whether the media keeps pushing it," Toth said.
Dexter Buck of Bear Paw Livestock in Chinook said cattle prices right now vary. Cattle being sold to feedlots to be fattened are selling at a good price, but cattle that are being sold for slaughter have lost about 10 cents a pound in the last 10 days, he said.
Part of that may be because the export market was shut down after the Washington discovery of mad cow and sales are limited to U.S. consumers, he said. The bad weather across the country may have reduced the amount of beef being eaten, which will impact the price, he added.
If the industry can adjust to not having major export markets, cattle prices should even out, he said.
"If we hang on and do what we're doing right now, we should get along well," Buck said.
Hill County Commissioner Kathy Bessette, who ranches north of Havre with Randy Bessette, her son, said she doesn't think the discovery has hurt local ranches.
"We're in Montana and I hear people say they're not worried about it," she said. "I think they're saying, 'We like beef and we're going to eat it and we're going to raise it.'"
Bessette added that she is traveling to a meeting in Washington, D.C., where she will hear representatives of the U.S. Department of Agriculture talk about BSE.
"I hope I'll learn lots there," she said.
Hill County Extension agent Joe Broesder said he can't say what impact the discovery might have on cattle operations.
"I'd say it's a little early to know. There's been so much developing and not developing, it's a little early," he said.
The people who buy beef don't seem to be extremely concerned about the risk, Broesder said.
"I think people are pretty confident with what we're doing in the United States to deal with the problem," Broesder said.
Not many local ranchers have contacted him with concerns, he said.
Broesder said the discovery of BSE in Canada actually seemed to help U.S. sales, with the price for older cattle going higher than it had in years.
He added that the cattle market right now is a little higher than it was at this time last year.
Bessette said the same. Prices dropped at first, she said.
"Right away, yes, but I think things are still coming back," she said.
Toth said the discovery of two cases of BSE in a year shouldn't raise a lot of concern. It's not like an epidemic, she said.
"When you consider in the whole of the United States there's one cow, in the whole of Canada there's one cow, it's like saying one mosquito is going to kill everyone in the United States," she said.
Manuel said if the market drops because of BSE, the solution for ranchers may be to make sure they own the cattle from birth to the time it's sold to put on people's plates. That way the rancher can verify how the cattle were raised and fed.
"There seems to be some interest in grass-fed beef now," he said. "I don't really blame people."