Worried about ominous diseases from Down Under, Texas beef producers are calling for extreme caution in importing feeder cattle from Australia.

After hearing that the Australians might start shipping to Texas Panhandle feedlots, John Dudley, president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, fired off a letter to USDA Secretary Ann M. Veneman.

“We wanted to put a little heat on USDA to ratchet up the protocol for bringing these cattle into the country. We have a lot of concerns about it,” says Dudley, a Comanche, Texas rancher.

“There are some diseases in Australian cattle that we do not have. In the current environment where we're dealing with terrorism, it's a dangerous time to be bringing these cattle in. We want to be doubly cautious about it,” he says.

“There would be an awful lot of exposure getting the Australian cattle across, then into Texas and quarantined, and then on to the feedlots.”

Australian cattle would probably be shipped to the Texas gulf coast. Then they would be quarantined, transported, fed and processed in the state.

“Consequently, a vast quantity of the state's 14 million head of cattle could potentially be exposed to diseases or vectors that do not exist in the state if the appropriate quarantine procedures are not implemented and strictly enforced,” Dudley says.

Imported Australian cattle would compete with U.S. cattle just as the industry is returning to economic health. Over the past 18 months, stocker and feeder cattle prices improved, Dudley says. But he worries about the market impact of large numbers of Australian cattle, as well as potential animal health problems.

“The economic health of the stocker and feeder cattle sectors could be jeopardized should an unintended consequence arise from importation of feeder cattle from Australia,” he says.

Though Australian cattle have not yet entered the country, Dudley says the association elected to be proactive on the issue.

“We have a number of reasons to believe there is interest in bringing these cattle in. There must be some sort of attractive economics to make people want to do it. We have grave concerns about it,” Dudley says.

chjohnson@primediabusiness.com