Cattle ranchers worry Tyson fire will affect them next

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"Uncertainty is huge.  There are a lot of questions to be answered," said Barb Downey, a cattle rancher from near Wamego.

Cattle ranchers face uncertain times after a fire took one of the nation's largest beef packing plants, the Tyson plant in Holcomb, out of operation.

The Tyson fire this last weekend could impact all Kansans.  Tyson buys about 25% of the beef produced in Kansas.  Putting a crimp in those sales with the plant's temporary closure could have ripple effects statewide.

The next group facing potential changes because of the fire is Kansas cattle ranchers.

"There's very little margin for error," Downey said.

The Tyson fire in Holcomb is a hot topic of discussion on the other end of the state at a Kansas Livestock Association Field Day outside Emporia.

"There are a lot of questions," Downey said, repeating herself.

She says the immediate impact of the shutdown is hitting the feed lots in Kansas, as they work to move the cattle they've already purchased to other processing plants in Kansas or even out of state.  But, she adds, cattle ranchers could be next.  The farm to table processing system for beef was already running at full capacity, she said, just enough feed lots and plants to handle the cattle for sale and meet demand at stores and restaurants.  

"So even what seems like a relatively small amount, 6 percent, becomes a major factor within the markets," she explained.  Cattle futures fell on Monday the most allowed after news of the fire spread.  As for cattle ranchers, "We are looking at this a little long term.  We don't know how long  this situation will be in place.  And we don't know what sort of effects that will have for the cattle that we have coming."

The longer the plant stays closed, the wider the impact ripples get.  Which is why Downey says she's glad to see the governor and other elected leaders working to keep Tyson in Kansas and help get the plant re-opened.

"The Kansas economy is very much agriculturally based," she said.   "And the healthier our Kansas economy is, the better it functions, the better off all of us as Kansans are."

Meanwhile, cattle producers say the best way you can help them during all this is by continuing to trust the safety of the beef product already on store shelves. 

"The beef that they buy in the grocery store, at the restaurant, is absolutely unaffected," Downey said about consumers.  "In fact it's probably being monitored now even more intensely to make sure there are no problems."

That leaves ranchers to wait, worry and talk, preparing for what the unknowns could become tomorrow.