Published Friday    January 2, 2009
Mad cow rule may put farmers in dumps

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LINCOLN Nebraska's state veterinarian is among those worried that dead cattle could be left to rot in wi

The new rule, which takes effect April 27, says cattle over 30 months of age can't be rendered for animal feed unless their brains and spinal cords are removed first.

The Food and Drug Administration regulation is intended to prevent the prions that cause bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, from slipping into livestock feed and causing an outbreak in cattle. Prions are found in the brain and spinal cord.

The rendering truck is a popular method for disposing of cattle that die before going to market. But some fear that rendering companies may stop picking up dead cattle or that higher fees will discourage farmers from calling a rendering company when an animal dies. The result could be dead cattle that are illegally dumped.

"It's going to be a major problem, " said State Veterinarian Dennis Hughes, who works for the Nebraska Department of Agriculture. "We fear farmers are going to be hauling them into shelterbelts or ditches, to make good coyote food."

Although the rule will cause disposal challenges, the FDA maintains that the rule is needed to control the spread of mad cow disease.

FDA press officer Michael Herndon said more than 200 people have died worldwide from the human form of mad cow disease, including three cases in the United States that probably resulted from exposure outside the country.

"The FDA has an obligation to put control measures in place that will prevent the threats to public and animal health," Herndon said.

The regulation will have the most impact on the dairy industry which accounts for about 300 farms and 60,000 cattle in Nebraska.

Milk cows, which are more likely to reach old age, are most productive after 3 years of age and can continue to produce until they're 15 or older. Beef cattle, in contrast, often go to slaughter before they're 2 years old.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 4.2 million cattle and calves died before slaughter during 2007, roughly 4 percent of that year's Jan. 1 cattle inventory. Nebraska saw about a 3 percent death loss, or about 200,000 head. Iowa experienced about a 4.6 percent death loss, or about 185,000 cattle and calves.

Between 45 and 50 percent of animals that die on the farm go to rendering companies, said Tom Cook, president of the National Renderers Association. Rendering trucks travel regular routes to pick up animals from large farms and feedlots. Smaller operations call for the service when needed.

In past decades, rendering companies paid farmers for animal carcasses, which they boiled down for animal feed and other products. Today, most companies charge about $25 to $30 per head to remove an animal.

A rendering industry study said costs could go to $45 to $50 per head to cover additional labor and specialized equipment required to remove brains and spinal cords.

"It's safe to say there will be changes across the rendering industry," said Ross Hamilton, director of government affairs and technology for Darling International, a national company that provides rendering services in eastern Nebraska.

Cook said rendering companies probably will begin eliminating the banned material in early February so that their supply lines will be clear by April 27. He said he didn't know how many companies will adopt procedures to remove the material from older cattle and how many will simply stop accepting carcasses of cattle that fall under the restrictions those older than 30 months.

Lonnie Johnson, owner of Nebraska Byproducts of Lexington, said he intended to continue picking up dead animals for his customers.

"If we don't do that, I have a fear we're going to see a lot of dead stock lying in canyons and ravines and that type of thing," he said.

Alternative disposal options are relatively few. Farmers can bury dead animals, which is problematic in areas with high water tables or in situations where more than a few animals have died. In some areas, farm dead also can be sent to landfills or composted a controlled decomposition process similar to home gardeners' treatment of yard and kitchen waste.

However, state law limits composting to carcasses of no more than 600 pounds because of difficulties in properly composting larger animals. Although incineration is allowed, the facilities are expensive to build and lacking in the region.

Representatives of the dairy and rendering industries question the need for the new FDA regulation. They said that the chance of humans contracting mad cow disease from U.S. cattle is minuscule and that the new regulation is intended more to soothe the concerns of U.S. trading partners like Korea and Japan.

Mike Roder, spokesman for the Nebraska Dairy Industry Association, said it will be increasingly difficult for dairy farmers to deal with "downer" cows animals who through injury, disease or old age can no longer walk. Such animals aren't allowed to be slaughtered for their meat, because of the possibility they carry mad cow disease or some other disease.

"I can't take her to market, and I can't have her rendered," Roder said. "When you're doing this for a living, the rules seem to pile up."



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