Cattle farmers eye the bottom line

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Stan Murray was intending to take 40 to 50 head of cattle to market in the next two or three weeks. But that was before the mad cow scare descended upon the United States.

Now, the lifelong Sedgewickville, Mo., cattleman plans to hold onto those head of Black Angus cattle for a little while longer -- not because he's afraid they might be infected, but because he's afraid what he sees as a potential public overreaction may cut into his profit margin.

"We'll definitely see a financial impact," Murray said. "It's going to affect our bottom line. I'm just going to wait and see what the market does."

Murray's comments echoed the sentiments of several other Southeast Missouri beef providers: confident that an actual spread of mad cow disease won't happen but worried that consumer demand will plummet anyway and take the price of beef with it.

Area grocery shoppers on Monday were mixed in their degree of concern. Carl Napier of Sikeston, Mo., was in Cape Girardeau shopping and bought some beef, though he was careful to buy Black Angus beef and not Holstein because he was aware that the infected cow was a Holstein.

"It's just something to think about, but I'm not really worried," he said.

'I'm sure it's safe'

Kelly Baltzell of McClure, Ill., however, hasn't given mad cow disease a second thought.

"I'm sure it's safe," she said. "I haven't heard about it being around here, so why should we worry?"

Mike Kasten, who has a large cattle farm near the border of Bollinger and Cape Girardeau counties, said there is a lot of trepidation among cattle farmers.

"We're wondering what's going to happen," he said. "Just the unknown is the biggest thing."

Kasten said news about mad cow disease will have a significant effect on beef prices.

Prices for beef have been high of late, reaching more than $1 a pound in some cases for cows that can weigh more than 1,200 pounds. Kasten said he predicts prices will drop at least 20 percent until the scare subsides.

U.S. Department of Agriculture officials announced last week that there was a discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, in a single cow in Washington state. The finding presented the first case of mad cow disease in the United States, costing the industry its largest importers. Japan and more than two dozen countries have banned imports of U.S. beef.

Then on Monday the situation was exacerbated when it was reported that meat from the infected Holstein had reached eight states, mostly in the West. BSE is a concern because humans who eat the brain or spinal matter from an infected cow can develop a related brain-wasting illness.

The USDA has assured that the beef in the United States is safe because the parts most likely to carry infection -- the brain, spinal cord and lower intestine -- were removed before the meat from the infected cow was cut and processed. But Japan is among more than two dozen countries that have banned U.S. beef imports in response to discovery of the disease.

Expecting short-term slump

Most cattle farmers said they expected to see a short-term slump in prices, but that when consumers educate themselves they'll see that the meat is safe.

"What we have here is an isolated incident in Washington state with a cow imported from Canada," said Brent Bryant, executive vice president of the Missouri Cattlemen's Association in Columbia, Mo.

"In the short term, we're going to see some effect on the market," he said. "In the long term, when our trading partners reopen their borders and find U.S. beef is the safest, most wholesome product in the world, the situation will right itself."

Missouri farmers have a lot to lose. Missouri is the second leading state in the nation in the number of beef cows at 1.99 million, according to the association. Annual sales for beef cattle and calves in Missouri amount to nearly $1 billion.

"Obviously, we're disappointed," said Stephen Daume, a cattle farmer near Daisy, Mo. "We're all just hoping that cattle prices won't just fall out of bed, so to speak."

'Lots of safeguards'

But Daume said he and other farmers realize it all depends on how the public reacts to it.

"That really concerns me," he said. "None of the infected meat has entered the food chain. There are lots of safeguards in place. But if the public doesn't see that, it could hurt us."

Dutch Meyr, operator of Fruitland Dressed Meats, said he saw no slow-down in business Monday, though that didn't mean he wasn't worried.

"At this point, we don't really know," he said. "I don't think we'll notice it much around here. Foot-and-mouth disease was a hot topic around here two years ago. Every time there's a new incident, we probably lose a few beef eaters."

He's heard from some farmers who are pretty shaken, though.

"Everybody is devastated," he said. "We know the price is going to be cheaper, but we don't know how much. Everybody's shooting in the dark."

335-6611, extension 137

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