Washington rancher talks about mad-cow discovery

Washington rancher talks about mad-cow discovery

Bill Jackson, Greeley Tribune
January 26, 2006

Bill Wavin said there was no way to prepare for what happened to his family the evening of Dec. 23, 2003.

Wavin, his brother and mother own the Sunny Dene Ranch of Mabton, Wash., a 4,000-cow dairy and farming operation. On the evening of Dec. 23, the family learned from the USDA that the Holstein cow first confirmed to have bovine spongiform encephalopathy — mad cow disease — had come from their farm.

Wavin, who is also a large-animal veterinarian, was the featured speaker for Dairy Days at the 2006 Colorado Farm Show on Wednesday. He told the overflow crowd in the Exhibition Building that it was only the third time he has spoken publicly about the situation that has had worldwide ramifications for the beef industry.

“I am not a public speaker. I am a farmer and a veterinarian, and I am media-shy. But I will say up front the media treated us right and treated the industry right,” Wavin said.

Wavin said he had heard media reports of a cow with BSE coming from his area of eastern Washington earlier in the day. But the initial reports had the wrong town and that the dairy had been quarantined.

“We hadn’t been quarantined, so I knew it wasn’t us,” he said. And that continued to be the feeling until the 8 p.m. call came from the USDA and Washington state agriculture officials.

Wavin said he and his family decided they would not talk to the media directly, but let USDA, FDA and state officials handle that for them, which, in retrospect, was a smart decision, he said.

Wavin said his family’s belief system and their belief in God is what pulled them through the initial shock. It was the support of his family, his community, the USDA, FDA and even the media who got them through the days after the incident.

“Just 24 hours after we got word, we went to church for Christmas Eve services. I sat across from a man who had a 70,000-head (cattle) feeding operation, and I knew I had changed his life. I knew he could be upset with me. But that didn’t happen. It was remarkable how supportive everyone was,” Wavin said.

He said that support continued through the following few days. His cooperative sent milk trucks out to collect milk from his cows.

“Six hours after the announcement, the trucks rolled right up in front of the press to get our milk. Vendors showed up to do their jobs. I think that sense of normalcy was comforting to the public,” he said. “Here was the first case of BSE in the United States, and nobody panicked.”

Wavin said he feels terrible about the collateral damage that has been done since that incident more than two years ago, but every other aspect of it was positive.

He lost 141 head from his dairy because they could have come from the same Canadian herd from which he bought the infected cow; the first reaction could have been to shut down everything and see his entire herd destroyed.

“The industry today is the same as it was with the guy with 40 cows years ago who was busting his hump to provide food for this nation. It just looks different now. Now, there are so many who are far removed from the farm that an inherent distrust could develop. But that has not happened,” Wavin said.

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