Friday, July 13, 2007

Brucellosis and cattle prices

The saga finally came to an end -- or at least this one did. A Bridger rancher was forced to come to an inadequate price for his cattle. Forgive us if we believe the rancher rather than the feds on this one.

To someone unfamiliar with the livestock business, arriving at a replacement cost for the cattle that will be slaughtered because of animals testing positive for brucellosis would seem to be a simple and straightforward matter.

It isn't. Over decades, most ranchers go through a continual process of improving their herd. It is a sort of process of natural selection on a small scale: if a cow or ewe doesn't carry a calf or lamb to term and bring it through the summer in good shape, that animal is going to be culled.

Animals that have a tendency to get sick are culled, ewes that deliver twins are kept longer and their female offspring is preferentially kept for breeding stock.

If given bulls or rams produce good stock, more are sought from the same sources.

In short, livestock that thrives in the particular microenvironment of a given ranch is developed over time. And a sort of symbiotic relationship between rancher and livestock develops -- the rancher learns how to care for a given kind of livestock, and livestock that thrives under the particularities and quirks of that rancher's care develops over time.

These are the sorts of losses that can't be accounted for in a simple "pounds on the hoof" calculation -- even one that takes into consideration future worth of the cattle later in the year after a summer of grazing.

As Montana Headlines has stated before, the brucellosis-free status of Montana certainly needs to be preserved. But the reservoir of brucellosis is controlled by the federal government -- and the federal government should be more than generous to ranchers affected by it. And in this case, it doesn't appear that the feds were generous at all.

As always, check out Sarpy Sam for the best coverage of this issue.

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