- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2003

GRANGER, Wash. — Just hours old, a Holstein calf teeters on unsteady legs, shivering in the winter cold as John Prins nudges it into a stall of fresh, warm hay.

On dairy farms like this across the Yakima Valley, life and the daily responsibilities of farming go on amid the uproar over the first U.S. case of mad cow disease, found in a Holstein shipped to slaughter from a farm in nearby Mabton.

The news — which led to two dozen nations banning the import of U.S. beef — was a blow to cattle farmers who have suffered difficult markets in recent years and who hope that it is an isolated case that won’t hurt consumer demand.

“I didn’t think we’d see it in the United States,” says Mr. Prins, a quiet Dutch immigrant who has been farming in the valley for nearly 30 years. “I’m a little bit concerned people will be afraid of dairy and beef.”

About 80 dairy farms dot the Yakima Valley east of the Cascade Mountains, interspersed with fields of hops, wine-grape vines and apple orchards.

Since the news of mad cow disease broke last week, farmers and others in the community have shied away from media attention. Only a trusted veterinarian could coax Mr. Prins into discussing his operation, the mad cow case and what it means for the cattle industry.

“I think the general public assumes too much,” Mr. Prins says. “They assume food comes from the grocery store, meat comes from the meat counter, dairy comes from the dairy shelf.”

Like many dairy farmers, his day starts at 5 a.m. Mr. Prins first checks on the calves that were born during the night — the farm averages about four each day and had a recent high of 19 — then identifies the cows that have given birth and are ready to be milked after the main herd.

Each cow is milked twice a day, and with a herd of 1,350 at three sites, milking goes on nearly around the clock. Add in feeding, doctoring animals, baling hay, keeping the books, harvesting 400 acres of corn for feed, and the average day stretches to 7 p.m. — seven days a week.

The respite is Sunday morning church services, and the family probably has “the reputation for being late,” Mr. Prins says with a laugh.

His parents immigrated to South Dakota from the Netherlands when he was a toddler. They moved to central Washington to open a dairy farm in 1959, a time when the family farm still meant a mom-and-pop operation raising a small herd of cattle.

Those days are disappearing, Mr. Prins says. He joined his father as a partner in the 1970s and bought him out in 1980. Two sons now have joined him as partners in what is considered a midsize operation with 10 employees.

After calves are born, the heifers are sent elsewhere to be raised for three months before rejoining the dairy farm, and the young bulls are sold for beef along with aging dairy cows.

Since Yakima Valley farmers tend to raise dairy cows for themselves, rather than for sale, anyone planning to expand a herd must look elsewhere for new animals, usually to auctions in the Midwest and Canada. U.S. officials announced Saturday that they had tentatively traced the diseased cow to Alberta, Canada, where officials found a case of mad cow last May.

Cows require high maintenance: shots and immunizations, feed, equipment with replacement parts, electricity, fuel and labor — as well as quality controls to ensure all environmental and health regulations are met.

Those operating costs don’t go down when beef or dairy prices fall.

“The last couple of years were tough. We’ve been in it long enough that it’s been tough, but not nearly as tough as someone who’s been up to their ears in debt,” Mr. Prins says.

Last year was the first year his farm lost money.

High beef prices have helped some dairy farmers weather a downturn in the dairy market, but Mr. Prins says that won’t continue if consumers aren’t convinced that products are safe from mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE.

The disease is a public health concern because it is related to an incurable human disease, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob. In Britain, 143 persons died of the human variant after an outbreak of mad cow disease in the 1980s. People can get it if they eat meat containing tissue from the brain and spine of an infected animal.

Public-health officials say the disease does not affect milk and the parts of a cow usually eaten as meat — both crucial points for dairy farmers, who make 10 percent to 20 percent of their living selling cattle for beef.

Mr. Prins has faith that federal regulators will help the industry recover. In the meantime, farmers have no choice but to conduct business as usual.

“I’d do this all over again. It’s not easy, because you never get away from it,” he says. “Now, I have a couple of sons who are interested in the dairy industry. My hope is they can make a good living at it, as we did.”

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