In this column a couple months back, I stressed how important it is for crop and livestock producers to work together.
Too often, one segment could almost be accused of preying on the other. For example, a big corn crop means less profit for the row-crop farmer while livestock producers literally lick their chops at the thought of cheap grain prices.
Now, with the late-December announcement of BSE, or mad cow, in the U.S., it's even more crucial that the crop and livestock industries work together.
Fortunately, there's no loss of information about BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy). Ever since the 6½-year-old cow was discovered in Washington state, newspapers, television and radio have done an admirable job of reporting. I must admit, though, that I've gotten tired of seeing that same crippled dairy cow falling in a pen. Actually, it's a 14-year-old video tape of a cow from England.
USDA should also get a solid pat on the back for its efforts on keeping the public informed. Its daily reports to the media on regulatory changes — and how the U.S. is handling the situation — seem to be accurate and straightforward.
Our sister magazine, BEEF, has done a stellar job of informing cattlemen about the issue as it's unraveled, too. In a recent online survey of its readers, 65% believe USDA has done a good job of handling the BSE issue in terms of being open and fair; 28% say USDA has done a fair job. In addition, 82% believe the beef industry has done a good job of addressing the BSE issue to consumers and media.
When it comes to consumers, a surprising 27% of respondents in a recent CNN-Time poll say they think the beef supply is unsafe. Sixty-six percent say they think the beef supply is safe.
The beef industry has long been a supporter of risk management when it comes to food safety. In fact, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association wasn't taken off guard by the BSE announcement. Its disaster contingency plans immediately kicked into crisis-control mode.
In observing how the BSE situation has been handled, it makes me wonder whether issues like StarLink a few years ago could have been more effectively managed. Was there a good disaster contingency plan in place?
Granted, that problem caused just a hiccup in the markets, unlike the 25% drop in cattle prices after the BSE incident. At press time, fed-cattle markets were still down nearly 25% ($75-78/cwt.) from their $93/cwt. high.
The trick now is to regain the confidence from foreign countries that have shut down their imports of U.S. beef. About 10% of U.S. beef is exported. On the domestic front, consumers need to be regularly reassured that the beef supply is safe.
The readers of this magazine are all consumers; some own livestock and all help provide feed for the U.S. cattle market. There's no better time than now to step up to the plate and support the livestock industry. Keep eating beef and assure your neighbors and city friends do the same.
In addition, stay informed about what the beef industry is doing to control future BSE problems and be vocal about how you feel. Help keep the beef industry solid and speak up when you can. It needs your support at every level.
I also hope the crop industry is watching and learning from the professional way the BSE issue is being managed. It could be useful in the years ahead.