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Mad cow scare lowers beef prices

The phrase "it's a small world" is a gross understatement when it comes to world economy.

When the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture announced on Dec. 23 that a dairy cow with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (the scientific term for mad cow disease) had been discovered in Washington State, over two dozen nations put a ban on importing U.S. beef and market prices plummeted.

In the opposite corner of the country, Pike County cattlemen will feel the hit as if it came from next door.

"Everybody's asking, what's it going to do to the market?" said Jack Jones, who is part owner with his brother and father of South Alabama Livestock.

Jones expects the market to be 20 percent off when it opens on Monday compared to where the market ended before Christmas.

Brothers Wayne and Paul Davis have been in the cattle business most of their lives; first with their father Pugh and now on their own.

"We're all sitting by watching what will happen," Wayne said. "We don't know what the market will do."

Paul said the market will definitely be hurt in the short term, but beyond that, he'll be playing the waiting game with his brother.

"We really don't know what to expect," he said. "In the short term, it's definitely going to hurt (the market), but beyond that we just don't know."

Wayne said it was encouraging that the Chicago Mercantile Exchange closed high before the holidays, but he can only hope that the market will stabilize and prices will go up before he and Paul sell their cattle in March and April.

Six months ago, Paul said the market price was almost a dollar per pound. Producers will be lucky if they can get 70 cents.

"No one really knows because there has been no market since it's been closed over the holidays," Paul said.

Other than the market drop, mad cow disease is not a serious threat to beef or consumers in Pike County. Neither Paul nor Wayne has ever had any experience with it in their own herds.

"It's a real disease and it's a debilitating disease, but the chances of people getting it are astronomical," Wayne said.

Jones, who is also a large animal vet in Brundidge, said he hasn't seen any cases of mad cow disease in animals.

"It's a very rare, exotic disease," he said. "It's a slow acting virus and takes several years to take effect."

The disease attacks the nervous system. Cows become disoriented, suffer from severe muscle twitching and have difficulty rising or walking. And unless consumers eat the infected nerve or brain tissue of a cow, chances are slim to none that they will contract the disease.

"There is some chance that people can get it, but not much of one," he said. "Cattle get it from eating tankage, which contains the infected brain or nervous tissue of a cow who died with the disease … You can't get it from eating red meat."

Tankage has been banned in the U.S. for many years. Wayne said most cattlemen in Alabama feed their cows what they grow. He said he and Paul feed their cows grain, hay and peanut husks and buy very little feed.

Ultimately, Jones said the fact that the government caught the dairy cow with the disease in Washington State should be comforting.

"It's not something to be overly concerned about," Jones said. "The fact the (the U.S.) is testing for it and found one should be an assurance. If they weren't doing any testing, then we should be more concerned."