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Wednesday, December 31, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Snohomish County cattlemen undaunted by mad-cow scare

By Emily Heffter
Times Snohomish County bureau

STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Dale Reiner closes a gate on his 300-acre ranch near Monroe as Angus cattle graze. They eat only grass and hay.
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Snohomish County cattleman Jerry Labish typically sells cattle to his friends and neighbors, people who know where the animals were born and what they eat.

And Monroe-area rancher Dale Reiner said he doesn't butcher "downer" cattle, those too sick or injured to stand up. He doesn't sell them or even eat their meat, he said.

As news broke last week that a downer Holstein in Yakima County was infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad-cow disease, farmers in Snohomish County's $2.7 million beef industry proclaimed their operations safe.

The longtime ranchers say the small Snohomish County beef industry is more of a specialty business, adhering to stringent standards. That's why, they say, business here may improve as people turn to local farms, rather than grocery chains, to buy beef.

"Most of the beef-raisers in Snohomish County are small operations," said Reiner, the vice president of the Snohomish County Cattlemen. "They leave a lot to reputation."

Only four or five Snohomish County ranchers depend on beef cattle for a living, said Labish, the Snohomish County Cattlemen's president. The rest are hobby farmers who sell meat by the cow, either by having animals custom-slaughtered or by letting buyers take the animals to a slaughterhouse.

Even larger-scale farmer David Steele, who owns Forest Cattle and splits his time between Monroe and Eastern Washington, said he makes most of his local profits by selling organic or grass-fed beef. He has about 1,500 head of cattle.

Snohomish County agriculture is changing, in part through county and state programs designed to make it viable by encouraging farmers to seek niche markets and local customers to buy local food. The mad-cow scare could be a boon to that "buy local" campaign, incoming County Executive Aaron Reardon said.

"Having dealt with agricultural issues in the Legislature, we've seen that happen," he said, adding that he hopes to have an agriculture "point person" on his staff to help handle issues such as this one.

The Washington Agricultural Statistics Service estimates there are 31,500 head of cattle in Snohomish County. Of those, 16,300 are dairy cows, and 3,500 are being raised for beef. Most of the rest are either too young or used for breeding.

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Snohomish County cattle roam on acres of grass and eat hay in the winter. Some herds are certified organic and kept separate to graze in organic fields. Others eat grain.

For the most part, ranchers don't slaughter a cow until they have a buyer. Many customers split animals with friends or other customers, so they can each fill their freezers with high-grade ground beef, roasts and steaks.

Steele won't sell less than 50 pounds of ground beef at a time. He handles his cattle carefully, he said, and takes pride in their quality. They don't get sick often, he said, and if they have difficulty calving and become paralyzed, he shoots them rather than trying to sell the meat.

"It's a different type of industry, certainly," said Ned Zaugg, the agricultural extension's Northwest Washington-area dairy agent. "That has a huge impact on facilities and, you know, the size of the operation."

Once, Steele said, he ate beef from a downer cow that was injured while giving birth, and it didn't taste good.

"It's not something I'd feel comfortable selling because it would hurt my reputation," Steele said.

Reiner described the lengths he will go to to get a downer cow to walk. He gives them about five days before he kills them, he said. He uses a tractor and hip swings to lift them up, trying to get their blood flowing. He once gave a downer cow to a trucker working on his farm, so the man could have it slaughtered for the meat.

But neither Reiner nor Steele could afford to market that kind of beef, they said.

Zaugg said it's rare in Washington for downer cows to be used for meat. Most slaughterhouses won't accept them, he said.

"There are very, very few that will ever find their way (into the meat supply)," he said.

The cow from a Mabton, Yakima County, ranch that tested positive for mad-cow disease was a downer dairy cow being processed into hamburger, officials said.

Snohomish County dairyman Hank Graafstra said he doesn't sell his downer cattle for meat. Sick cattle that can't stand up usually die on their own, he said, and then a rendering service picks them up for disposal.

Graafstra, owner of Country Charm Dairy in Arlington, said he's not worried about his cows because they are all born and raised on the farm and eat carefully prepared feed, and because when he sends underproducing dairy cows to slaughter, he puts them up for auction — a sale process that involves heavy regulation.

Graafstra, whose farm doesn't slaughter cattle or prepare beef, sees between 25 and 30 percent turnover in his herd every year as he sends underproducing milk cows to auctions, where they are bought by slaughterhouses. But he said sales of his cattle for meat make up only about 4 or 5 percent of his income.

"We have been a closed herd for many, many years," he said. "We don't feed them blended rations from anybody."

He feeds cows a custom blend of corn, beet pulp, cotton hulls, soy products and a homemade combination of minerals. He thinks his local dairy business draws customers who want to know where their food comes from.

"We sell everything right here off the farm, people know us, we're here, we've been in this community since 1953," he said. "We really try to run our dairy top of the line, you know."

Seattle Times Snohomish County bureau reporter Jane Hodges contributed to this report. Emily Heffter: 425-783-0624 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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