Future of beef market uncertain

Officials say it's too early to know effects of Mad Cow disease discovery

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The discovery this week of Mad Cow disease in the U.S. has raised questions about the future of the beef market, especially in Colorado, which ranks in the top 10 beef producing states.

With 12 countries already closing their borders to American beef, and corn and cattle prices dropping, the Colorado beef industry likely will see the effects, although ranchers and officials say it's too early to tell.

Bill Green, who runs 300 head of cattle north of Craig, said there's no indication yet exactly what to expect. One thing is for certain, Green said, "It's not good news."

Green said the news will benefit countries like Australia, which have been eager to export more beef to countries such as Japan, which now has refused to import U.S. beef.

Factors, such as how many cattle are found to be infected, and how well the U.S. can stem fears at home and abroad about the safety of U.S. beef, likely will determine the impact.

According to Keith Collins, the USDA's chief economist, who spoke at a Dec. 24 news briefing, "...we are at the very early stages of this investigation so what's going to happen in the marketplace, the economic effect is really going to hinge on how this investigation turns out."

The cattle market in Colorado accounts for 60 to 65 percent of all farm commodities in the state, according to Lance Fretwell, a deputy state statistician for the Colorado Agricultural Statistics Service.

Gross cash receipts for calves and cattle in Colorado total about $3 billion, compared to $4.5 billion in total farm commodities.

In 2002, Colorado had 2.65 million head of cattle.

"That number was enough to rank us 10th in the nation," Fretwell said. "That's about generally where we run."

Close to one million cattle stand on feedlots in Colorado at various stages of weight-gain prior to slaughter, Fretwell said.

Although any number of concerning conclusions seem likely, Fretwell said the situation requires a perspective view.

"One thing we have to keep in mind is that the U.S. has a very solid program of following up with any disease," Fretwell said.

Fretwell described a "wide network" of local veterinarians, who report to the state veterinarian, who reports to USDA inspectors.

"I think the system is well in place to get this situation under control as quickly as possible," Fretwell said.

Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or jbrowning@craigdailypress.com

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