But more precautions needed: U.S. cattle industry will survive mad cow scare

The U.S. beef cattle industry will survive finding a BSE-infected cow inside the nation's borders.

“It should squeeze by if we have a second mad cow scare,” says Greg Reding, a Denton County, Texas, rancher.

“But if we have a third detection, it could be disaster,” he said on a cold January morning as we bounced across pastures he's rented in three counties just to the north of the Dallas metroplex.

Reding stopped in Gainesville to load protein pellets and then drove into the countryside to several ranches to spread pellets and drop round bales of hay for his brood cows and replacement heifers.

Mad cow, Reding says, adds one more obstacle to an already rugged terrain facing ranchers.

He doesn't quibble with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's attempts to deal with and prevent mad cow infection in the U.S. cattle herd. “USDA is doing as much as it can,” he said. “And this agency is the best in the world at what they do. We have a good farm bill and good conservation programs.”

But he can see areas that need more attention to isolate the U.S. cattle herd from infection with BSE, foot and mouth disease or other diseases that could wipe out large numbers of animals and destroy the public's confidence in the beef supply.

More testing, he says, would help. “Japan slaughters 1 million head of cattle a year. They test 1 million head. In the United States, we slaughter around 33 million head and test only 23,000.

“I don't understand why we don't test more than that. The test can't be that expensive. If testing costs were prohibitive, I could understand, but a test can't be that costly.”

He is concerned, however, that ranchers would bear the added costs of testing. “We're already paying all the bills,” he said. “Veterinary expenses, vaccinations and feed all mount up. And we're looking at a slim profit margin to begin with.”

He pointed to the twine holding the large round hay bales together. “Cost for things like twine have gone up,” he said. “I don't begrudge the folks who make the twine from earning a profit,” he said. “But it costs a lot to raise cattle. The one thing that has saved us the past few years has been low interest rates.”

He feels the same way about the Country Of Origin Labeling provision. “That could be a good program if the costs are not put back on U.S. producers. It's the imported goods we need to worry about. Why don't we just tag them?”

Reding contends that imported cattle must be scrutinized as they come across the borders. “We know the U.S. herd is healthy,” he said. “The only problems we'll get will come from outside, so we need to test those cows thoroughly before we let them come in.

“The United States has the safest and healthiest food supply in the world, and the cheapest. We have feed restrictions for our cattle and those limits are getting tougher.”

Reding is a fifth-generation Denton County rancher. His grandfather started a ranch here in the late 1800s. “We have one of the oldest cattle brands in the county,” he said.

But it's getting harder to raise cattle in the shadow of one of the nation's largest cities, one that gobbles up huge chunks of rural land each year as suburb, shopping center and industrial developers pay considerably more for acreage than a rancher can make raising cattle.

“BSE just adds to the problems we face trying to raise cattle so near a large city,” Reding said. “It's gotten almost impossible to find ranch land in Denton. That's why I'm so spread out.”

He's as frugal as possible. “We don't own a lot of equipment. We need a tractor and a truck, but we don't do any farming. We fertilize our hay meadows but we have custom operators bale it for us. We don't want the expense and bother of owning all that equipment.”

He said an old cattleman once told him that the only piece of equipment a good rancher needed was a wheelbarrow. “And he said he'd take a hard look at the wheelbarrow. We keep things as simple as possible.”

Reding, in his early 30s, says ranching is his passion, the job he's always wanted. He earned a degree in agricultural education from Texas Tech and knows he could find other work. “But I hope it never comes to that.”

He believes the United States faces a potential tragedy as farmers retire and few young ones step in to take over. “Lenders don't want to risk money on farming operations,” he said. “It's too uncertain. I was fortunate because the Lone Star Bank, a PCA, offered a young farmer program that allowed me to get started on my own. I had the experience, I just needed a start.”

Still, he credits his wife, Shawn, with making his dream a possibility. “If she didn't have a good job, I couldn't do this,” he said. Shawn owns a real estate appraisal business in Sanger.

Reding has a brood herd of 360 commercial cows and runs 200 stocker calves each fall. “I use Black Angus bulls on the commercial cows.”

He said thorough vaccination records, offering large lots of uniform calves and maintaining the Angus background helps market his calves.

“We have a split calving season, 90 days in spring period and 90 in the fall.”

He says the split allows him to give a non-bred cow a second chance without taking her through another year. “If she doesn't breed the second time, she goes to market.”

Reding thinks the cattle market has at least one more year of favorable prices. “We're in the 15th year of a national cow herd decline,” he said. “Next year, we'll be in the 16th year of declining numbers.”

Drought has been a big factor in herd reduction, he says. Environmentalists and their pressure to restrict cattle grazing leases also limited the amount of land available to raise cattle.

“I consider myself an environmentalist,” he said. “For one thing, if I overgraze, I can't make a living raising cattle. But with fewer public land grazing permits, there isn't as many places to put cattle.”

He said developers and hunters also have bought ranches and taken them out of production. And that leaves him a bit concerned for the future of food production in the United States.

“Corporate farms are not the answer and relying on imported food is too scary.”

Maintaining the integrity of the family-run farm and ranch, he says, is essential to the well being of the nation. And to do that, the government needs to do all in its power to inspect imported beef and test enough animals to make certain infected livestock never mingles with the U.S. herd.

For now, demand for beef remains strong. “The foreign markets that are closed because of the mad cow detection will re-open,” Reding said. “There are too many people with too much at stake for that not to happen.”

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.