BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) – The renewed flow of Canadian cattle into the United States remains below levels seen before a ban was imposed two years ago following a case of mad cow disease, economists and industry leaders say.

Canada has shipped nearly 250,000 cattle to U.S. feedlots and slaughter plants in the three months since the ban was lifted – not the flood some U.S. ranchers had feared.

Cattle prices in the United States also are holding firm, buoyed by strong demand and tight cattle supplies, said John Marsh, a professor of agricultural economics at Montana State University.

“Does that mean that Canadian cattle coming in had no impact? No,” he said. However, over time the market had adjusted to a certain number of Canadian cattle, and “that dent that people expected from Canadian cattle coming in just didn’t materialize,” he said.

A number of factors are at play, including a limited availability of trucks, the threat of continued litigation and the fact that Canada only can ship younger cattle due to ongoing trade restrictions.

Canada’s slaughter capacity has grown since 2003 and is expected to grow more by the end of next year, experts say.

Dennis Laycraft, executive vice president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, said the group estimated that Canadian imports to the United States would hit 700,000 to 900,000 head during the first year that trade resumed, and he expects that to hold true.

In 2001, Canada shipped about 1.3 million cattle to the United States. In 2002, a drought year, the number was closer to 1.7 million, said Ron Gustafson, a livestock economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

In May 2003, the United States banned Canadian cattle imports after Canada reported a case of mad cow disease. Canada reported two more cases this year. And there have been two cases in the United States: the first, in December 2003, involved a cow from Canada, the other, an animal from Texas.

The government planned to lift the ban in March. But a federal judge temporarily prevented that, acting on a request by the cattlemen’s group R-CALF United Stockgrowers of America.

A federal appeals court panel reversed that decision in July, saying U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull overstated the possible harm of letting limited Canadian cattle shipments resume. The first trucks rolled across the border July 18.

“So far, the movement has been relatively low, controlled, but it continues to build up week by week,” Gustafson said. Seasonal variations affect numbers, and he said it’s difficult to gauge just how much those numbers will grow.

Restrictions require that Canadian feeder and slaughter cattle sent to this country be killed at younger than 30 months of age. Laycraft, who is eager to see full trade re-established, estimated that older culled cows and bulls typically accounted for 20 to 25 percent of Canada’s live cattle shipments.

He said that with the procedures in place, consumers in both countries should be confident in the safety of their beef.

Bill Bullard, R-CALF’s chief executive officer, said his group is still concerned about the potential risk of additional mad cow cases from resuming cattle trade with Canada. He said consumers should have a right to choose between U.S. and Canadian beef products.

On the Net:

Agriculture Department:

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.