Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

At Auction, Cattle Sales Still Brisk ; Producers Are Relieved by the Low Impact from the Mad-Cow Crisis, Although Some Prices Are Lower

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

At Auction, Cattle Sales Still Brisk ; Producers Are Relieved by the Low Impact from the Mad-Cow Crisis, Although Some Prices Are Lower

Article excerpt

W.F. Baker leans against a railing inside Port City Stockyards as a crossbreed steer calf is led into the ring.

He listens intently to what sounds like gibberish coming from the auctioneer's mouth and is relieved when the brisk bidding ends. "Ninety-three. That's a good price for that animal," says Mr. Baker, as the unruly calf is prodded out of the ring. (That's 93 cents a pound.)

For cattle producers like Baker, the reopening of cattle auctions after the Christmas break has been a nervous time. Since bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE - the scientific name for mad-cow disease - was discovered in a heifer in Washington State on Dec. 23, the US beef industry has watched foreign markets pull its meat from stores and ban future imports.

But while prices for fed cattle - those about to be slaughtered - are still lower than normal, feeder cattle - those who need several months to mature - are bringing in roughly the same amount they were prior to the mad-cow discovery.

"Buyers are betting that fed cattle will be profitable in the future," says Stephen Hammack, a beef cattle specialist at Texas A&M University's research and extension center in Stephenville. "And that's significant. It shows that consumer confidence has not been greatly affected by this."

Indeed, the industry's worst fears have not been realized. In a survey taken in late December by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, 89 percent of respondents said they were confident US beef was safe from mad-cow disease, and 75 percent said they were eating as much beef as they were a month earlier.

Why people have stayed calm

That the mad-cow discovery has not developed into a full-blown scare suggests to some that the beef industry has been effective in educating the public about the risks. Others point to the immediate response by US agriculture officials to the situation.

"Our industry didn't panic or try to hide it," says J.D. Sartwelle Jr., president of Port City Stockyards Co. "We simply explained the facts and put additional safeguards in place. Our beef supply is still the safest in the world."

While eating today's stockyard special, hamburger patty with gravy and mashed potatoes, Mr. Sartwelle explains that many cattle producers were concerned about what prices would look like when auctions opened earlier this month.

"Everybody was kind of apprehensive," he says. "But the sky did not fall down as Chicken Little suspected."

Granted, the fed-cattle market is still down about 15 cents per pound since Dec. 23 - mainly because markets such as Japan and Mexico haven't lifted restrictions on US beef imports, which is causing a glut in supply. But feeder prices remain strong. "This mad- cow thing has been blown plum out of proportion," says Leroy Keaton, a cattle buyer at today's auction. …

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