September 2018
From the State Vet's Office

Working with Livestock Markets

As Times Keep Changing

The local livestock markets play a significant role in the beef industry here in Alabama. Maybe significant is too mild an adjective to describe the role of the local stockyard in the Alabama beef industry. Maybe the adjective should lean more toward critical. While marketing of beef cattle over the years has seen some changes, the majority, about 85 percent, of our beef cattle make a trip to the local stockyard before going on to their next stop. Whether it be staying in the Southeast on stocker operations, going to the Midwest to be put on grazing, going to cull cow processing or even going back into a breeding herd somewhere, most Alabama cattle make a stop at the local stockyard first.

I remember as a little kid going to the sales with my grandmother. For some reason, one of the memories that stands out in my mind was a big mule in the back of a pickup truck with sideboards. In fact, most of the cattle transported there back in the day came in trucks with sideboards. I guess the animals just knew it was best not to try to jump out because I suspect a lot of them could have just hopped out and been gone if they really tried. (I wonder if there are some younger people reading this that don’t know what I am talking about when I mention sideboards.)

When I was in private practice, I was a stockyard vet, primarily taking blood samples to test for brucellosis. But like all stockyard vets, I did the pregnancy checking and some vaccinating and a little of just whatever they needed a veterinarian to do. That was where I met Ben Rigsby, the USDA employee who tested the blood and did other regulatory stuff. Ben and I became good friends and I would probably say that is what sparked my interest in regulatory veterinary medicine.

I say all of that just to emphasize that I was pretty familiar with stockyards when I went to work as a Veterinary Medical Officer and later State Veterinarian. Hopefully, that has made working with them a little easier. To hear some people talk, you might get the idea that those of us in the regulatory business are adversaries of the owners of the stockyard. I understand that perspective. But that is just not how it is.

The problem that stockyards have is that they are strategically positioned to play a vital role in many of the issues that the beef industry faces. And while there are times when both sides sort of jockey for position over some things, there are two unarguable facts in my mind. First, both we, the regulators, and the stockyards, the regulated, want the best for the beef industry in Alabama. And, second, our regulatory and surveillance programs would have never succeeded without the support of the markets.

Many of you reading this may not remember a time when brucellosis was a disease that existed in Alabama. But many of you do remember a disease that caused abortions, weak calves, and infertility, not to mention the farmers who were infected from handling contaminated material from the infected cows. You remember having to have cattle tested to go to other states to show or to sales. You also know that without the testing that was done at the stockyards, we would probably not be brucellosis-free today. Now bear in mind that these markets didn’t have a choice, but they bought into the program and supported it. That is why Alabama is brucellosis-free today. I realize that there was some, even at times a lot, of aggravation that accompanied testing cattle at the markets. Every time you run an animal through a chute there are risks of injury. The stockyards were also required to present the cattle for testing. That usually tied up an employee, so there was a cost to the stockyards as there is with most regulations. Yet, in the end, the livestock markets supported the program because it was best for the Alabama beef industry.

The success of the BSE (Mad Cow Disease) surveillance program has worked because of support from the markets. There have been two positive cases of BSE in Alabama. When we have needed to trace cattle back to the farm of origin, the stockyards have been more than cooperative in allowing us to research sale records that sometimes went back a few years. Again, making records available to regulatory officials for such tracing is a regulation that the markets live with. But I want to make it clear that the market owners could make it difficult to accomplish our tasks if they wanted to. But, again, they understand what is best for the Alabama beef industry.

For the past several years, the livestock markets and the regulatory officials have agreed that we need some type of disease traceability system that would allow us to respond rapidly if there were to be an outbreak of a disease, like foot-and-mouth disease. We have been fortunate that while we wade through the details of such a program, we have not had to deal with a devastating disease. We cannot just continue to whistle as we walk past the cemetery, hoping nothing bad will happen. I saw something somewhere lately that drives home that point. It said, "Hope Is Not a Plan."

I recently met with the Alabama Livestock Marketing Association to continue to work out the kinks in our plan for disease traceability. I am concerned about coming up with a workable plan to trace diseased or exposed animals, quickly and as accurately as possible, to their farm of origin or to where they went after leaving the auction. They are concerned about doing what is best for the beef industry in Alabama, while at the same time not wanting to be stuck with a large price tag for implementing the program. I am also concerned that we do not unduly saddle the markets with all of the costs of complying with traceability regulations. The costs of implementing our livestock traceability program will need to be spread out to the federal and state governments and the industry. So, while we know where we want to go, we continue to work and dialogue on how to get to our destination.

I appreciate the fact that the markets have always been willing to work with me on regulatory issues. Some of my State Veterinarian colleagues in other states do not have the good working relationship with the markets that I believe I do. I never know what issues or disease outbreaks may be out there on the horizon. I do know this, though: When the Alabama Livestock Markets have needed to, they have stepped up to the plate and have done what was best for their customers, the beef producers. I think we are able to work together because we share that same goal.

 

 

Dr. Tony Frazier is the State Veterinarian for Alabama. You can contact him at 334-240-7253.