Local ranchers switch to organic beef

– by Nathan Rushton, 12/9/2005, The Eureka Reporter
While only two cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, better known as mad cow disease, have been confirmed in the United States since late 2003, a national debate over how American cattle should be tested hasn’t yet subsided.

The exact cause of BSE is not known, although scientists say the disease is likely caused by an infectious form of a type of protein found in the central nervous tissues of a bovine’s brain and spinal cord.

The recent issue of the University of California’s California Agriculture Journal focuses on the policy implications of the U.S. cases of the fatal bovine disease, including which tests to use, how many cattle to test, which cows to test, whether to decentralize testing sites and, in particular, whether to allow testing on farms, according to a news release.

While the national debate over the disease continues, some local ranchers are taking advantage of the county’s prime agricultural grazing lands to market their beef, which they hope consumers will see as better-tasting, healthy and, most importantly, safe.

“We have a very excellent and unique climate here for raising grass-fed beef,” said Clint Victorine, who has been ranching cattle in the area for 10 years.

Victorine recently launched an online organic beef business, www.eelriverorganicbeef.com, to market his cattle to a national audience and the business has already seen meat shipped as far away as Florida.

Although Victorine does ranch conventional cattle, his 200 head of organically raised cattle are grazed in the Eel River Valley and Loleta areas.

“We want to give the consumer a product they feel comfortable with and something they know is safe,” Victorine said.

To certify his cattle under the California Certified Organic Farmers’ program, Victorine has to document his entire operation plan in a 1- to 2-inch thick organic systems plan, which chronicles how his pasture and the cattle are managed.

The first part of the organic certification process is making sure that the pasture land is free of chemicals, pesticides, fertilizers or anything non-natural, Victorine said.

The entire certification process takes about one-and-a-half years before any cattle are ready to go to market.
In addition to the limitations on what can be put on the pastures, no hormones, wormers or outside feeds are given to the cattle.

“If they are sick you have to doctor them,” Victorine said. “But then (the animals) would become conventional beef and would be out of the program.”

Cattle more than 30 months of age are the animals that become infected with the disease, which is transferred from cow to cow through animal feed byproducts, such as fat and blood and bone meal, he said.

That practice has been banned in the U.S. for more than 10 years.

The two animals that were discovered to have BSE in the U.S. were fed on feed lots, not grazed on grass.

Victorine said his beef has the highest level of security against the disease because he is getting double checked — once through the organic certification process and then at the meat processing plant by the USDA inspector.

In addition to being grass-fed, Victorine’s cattle are slaughtered when they are 18-24 months of age, which lessens the risk of transmitting BSE.

Gary Markegard, a University of California Cooperative Extension livestock advisor for Humboldt County, provides information and resources about the disease for area ranchers.

Much of the information Markegard receives about BSE comes from the state and the UC Cooperative Extension.

Although many of the calls he fields regarding the disease come from ranchers, beef consumers have also called with questions too, which are usually triggered by events covered in the media.

BSE, which has an incubation period of about two to eight years before the symptoms appear, primarily affects the cattle’s nervous system, Markegard said.

Once animals are infected they become progressively uncoordinated and often stagger around and eventually die, which typically occurs within two weeks to six months of the first noticeable symptoms, Markegard said.

Prior to the discovery of BSE in Washington State in 2003, exports of U.S. beef products were earning $7.5 billion annually, according to a 2004 economic analysis by the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Although export earnings fell by 64 percent following the discovery, the export decline as of November 2004 had been reduced to only 41 percent of prediscovery levels.

Although it is unclear how the decline affected Humboldt County, beef production for 2003, the last crop and livestock report by the county, indicated that more than 29,000 head of cattle with a total value of $14 million was produced.

The entire California’s California Agriculture journal article can be read at http://californiaagriculture.ucop.edu.