AR-News: Alberta ranchers begin land sell-off/National animal-tracking system still years

jim robertson wolfcrest at
Mon Feb 9 18:33:30 EST 2004

Alberta ranchers begin land sell-off
Many fear they won't recover from mad cow crisis


CALGARY, Alberta -- Alberta ranchers faced with mounting bills and no end in 
sight to the mad cow crisis are looking to sell off parts of their farms 
amid fears that the first sale could spark a collapse in land prices.

"The threat is that someone says, 'I'd better sell before my neighbors,' " 
said John Kolk of Picture Butte, who feeds 6,500 cattle on land that has 
been in his family for three generations.

"Once the first one jumps, everybody jumps," he said.

Lethbridge County in southern Alberta is home to Feedlot Alley, where 
700,000 cattle are fattened for slaughter. Most are in family-run operations 
that hold 3,000 to 15,000 head of cattle.

"It's a slippery-slope thing," said Kolk, who is also a councilor in the 
county, which declared itself an economic disaster area in June.

"If everybody's still standing, even if it's a bit shaky, we can kind of 
keep it together. But as soon as one person loses their footing, they all 
hang on to each other and you see a whole lot going down."

When Kolk spoke with his real estate agent for advice on what could be sold 
to ease the economic pain, there was little encouragement.

"He (threw) up his hands and said, 'You're No. 5 or No. 6 today.' "

Farm real estate agent Dave Clarke said hard bargaining has driven down the 
price on what little land has been sold in southern Alberta in recent 

"People have been passing up deals because the seller wouldn't reduce his 
price to what they thought was a realistic price to pay -- there's that 
downward pressure," Clarke said.

He said it will get worse as buyers look at the ramifications down the road.

"If the cattle markets are poor and the cattle feeding industry is poor, 
they know they're not going to get (good prices) for their barley or their 
hay," Clarke said. "People are paring down what they are prepared to offer."

Feedlot operators have seen their equity drop by up to 75 percent since mad 
cow disease was discovered in an Alberta breeder cow in May and 
international markets dried up for Canadian beef.

Cattle prices have plunged more than 30 percent since December, when a 
second cow in Washington state with bovine spongiform encephalopathy was 
confirmed as Alberta-born.

Despite an international panel's recommendation that the mad cow risk is a 
North American problem, the U.S. border remains closed for the foreseeable 
future to live Canadian cattle. And the feedlot industry is warning that its 
survival is down to a matter of weeks without emergency aid.

Ron Axelson of the Alberta Cattle Feeders Association warned of the ripple 

"They've seen some of the hurt now, but they've seen nothing compared to 
what it's going to be like," Axelson said. "The truth is, the worst is in 
front of us."

Producers under pressure from their banks to improve their financial margins 
have sold off thousands of animals in recent weeks. Most do not have the 
money to replenish their inventories.

Calf prices are also dropping, and there are few buyers.

Cattle auctioneer Jack Daines, who also sells real estate in central 
Alberta, said a number of producers are preparing to sell off 
quarter-sections of land to keep their operations afloat.

"They're not going to get as much as they would have before -- the prices 
are coming down -- but they need that money to give to the bank," said 
Daines, who has run the Innisfail Auction Mart for 49 years.

"It's a buyer's market."

National animal-tracking system still years away

By Ira Dreyfuss
The Associated Press

A cow wearing an ear tag peers through a fence last month at the Sunny Dene 
Ranch in Mabton, Yakima County, where the nation's first case of mad-cow 
disease was discovered. The federal government has promised a national 
electronic ID system for livestock.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A national electronic-tracking system that could locate 
any cow, pig or chicken in America within 48 hours is still years away even 
though Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman has promised to speed development.

The system would help authorities track down livestock that were exposed to 
infectious disease. They could be quarantined or killed, which would prevent 
the spread of diseases and keep slaughterhouses from processing the animals 
into food for people or feed for other animals.

December's first U.S. case of mad-cow disease highlighted the need for such 
an identification system. Spotty livestock records and the lack of a 
national tracking process have stymied investigators trying to determine the 
scope of America's possible exposure to mad cow.

So far, only the one Washington state Holstein with bovine spongiform 
encephalopathy has been found. An international committee of experts has 
concluded there probably are other cows with the disease.

Because the likely source of the brain-wasting infection was contaminated 
feed, authorities scrambled to find other cattle that could have shared the 

They are still looking.

The Agriculture Department considers 25 cattle born with the Holstein on a 
farm in Alberta, Canada, to be most likely to have shared feed. But only 14 
have been found.

Officials acknowledge they may never know what happened to the rest, and 
they suspect some may have been slaughtered.

Because mad cow is very rare, however, officials say they have little 
suspicion that the animals were diseased.

They plan to end their search possibly as early as next week.

Veneman told the Senate Agriculture Committee in January that the department 
"will be expediting the implementation of a verifiable system of national 
animal identification."

But members of a department-industry committee working on the project have 
not completed the plan. Veneman last week said, "I don't have a timeline."

The animal-ID program initially was created to respond to possible 
agricultural terrorism and to fast-spreading diseases such as foot and 
mouth. Mad-cow disease, which can lay dormant for years, "has added in some 
variables to what we may need identification for," Veneman said.

Planners had set up a series of timelines, however, and not all of them 
require final decisions on how to identify individual animals.

Officials expect to have systems in place in July to let states, which will 
administer their parts of the national system, give identification numbers 
to every facility that raises livestock, said Ohio cattleman Gary Wilson, a 
member of department's Animal Identification Steering Committee.

The next steps will be more difficult. Planners are working toward a goal of 
July 2005 to have systems ready so producers can label their animals with 
national ID numbers. The tagging itself would be phased because the planners 
intend to require IDs only as animals go to market, he said.

The committee does not expect immediate full compliance. "Two or three years 
down the road, we assume an individual (producer) will show up at a sales 
barn and, when you ask them for their ... number, they are going to say, 
'What?' " Wilson said.

The program could affect all livestock in commerce by July 2006, said John 
Meyer, chief executive officer of Holstein Association USA of Brattleboro, 
Vt., which has a pilot-identification program.

Tagging itself has a lot of problems yet to be solved. For instance, the 
committee has to decide whether to start by requiring identification only 
for older cows that are at highest risk of mad-cow or for all cattle going 
to market, Wilson said.

How to pay for the system also is a question.

Presumably, producers will buy their own tags, but states and the federal 
government will shoulder other costs as a service to the public health, 
Wilson said. In the case of mad-cow disease, experts say people who eat 
contaminated meat can contract the rare but fatal brain-wasting condition 
variant Creutzfeld-Jakob disease.

Other livestock industries have to work out methods for their animals. For 
instance, while cattle might wear individual electronic tags because they 
are sold individually or in small groups, hogs and poultry might get a 
single ID for an entire lot because they move from birth to slaughter in 
large groups.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

"I hold flesh-food to be unsuited to our species."
Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)

"Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding."
Albert Einstein

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