BILLINGS - Ranchers' spirits were high and cattle prices strong at Montana's largest stockyard Wednesday, one day after U.S. officials banned Canadian beef and cattle imports after a confirmed case of mad cow disease in neighboring Alberta.
Brisk sales seemed based at least in part on a belief that the indefinite ban may turn out to be a benefit for American ranchers.
"I think it will be a good thing for prices, as long as (mad cow disease) doesn't show up in America," rancher Brian Kurth said over coffee at the cafe inside the Public Auction Yards.
Tempered optimism was pervasive at the weekly sale. Ranchers and cattle buyers scattered around the sales ring tended to talk between bids about mad cow disease instead of the rain or lack of it.
Beth Emter, a spokeswoman for the Montana Stockgrowers Association, said her group is heartened by the government's response to the case. It provides assurances that infected meat cannot can get into the country from Canada, and may tighten the market and boost prices, she said.
"I think our fears have definitely been put to rest, at least for the time being," she said. "We feel really good that the system is working."
Cattle futures, monitored by a few buyers at the auction early Wednesday, were rebounding from a drop on Tuesday. And prices for slaughter cows being sold at the Billings auction house were averaging over 40 cents a pound Wednesday, "steady and strong" compared to recent auctions, said manager Bob Cook.
"This isn't the first thing that's come along to rock the market," Cook said. "I don't want to downplay the significance of finding (mad cow disease). But the market and structure is doing business as usual."
Kevin McNew, an agricultural economist at Montana State University, said the initial shock seemed to be diminishing.
"I think the initial fear and anxiety has worn off on Day 2 and people are beginning to realize it's not as bad as they thought on Day 1," he said. "As long as we stay on that course, I think prices should be OK."
Mad cow disease, known scientifically as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is a long-term, degenerative disease first diagnosed in 1986 in Great Britain.
U.S. health officials banned imports of cattle, beef, beef-based products and animal feed from Canada on Tuesday, after Canadian officials said an 8-year-old cow from a farm in northern Alberta had been diagnosed with mad cow disease.
The animal was slaughtered but never made its way into the food supply.
The farm was quarantined.
Mad cow disease affects the central nervous system of cattle and can have devastating economic effects. The United States, which has not had a case of mad cow disease, restricts imports from affected countries and has in place a system for disease surveillance and testing.
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human equivalent of mad cow disease, causes paralysis and death. Scientists believe people can develop variants of Creutzfeldt-Jakob after eating meat from infected animals.