SUNNYSIDE, Wash. -- Sergio Madrigal watched in despair as federal officials hauled away his 449 calves to be killed after the nation's first case of mad cow disease was found in a nearby dairy cow.
A year later, Madrigal looks out at his rebuilt herd and smiles -- it is one of many signs that American ranchers suffered few long-term ill effects from the cow that ruined Christmas 2003.
Beef prices are high, and so are spirits.
"I'm at another level now," Madrigal said in Spanish through a translator, as he sat in his kitchen after tending his herd now numbered at more than 500 calves.
But what a year it has been for the country's $44 billion cattle industry. Weeks of fear and uncertainty followed the announcement last Dec. 23 that the nation's first case of mad cow disease had been found in a Mabton, Wash., dairy cow.
More than 60 countries closed their borders to US beef products, everything from live cattle and cuts of beef to pet food and frozen potatoes prefried in beef fat.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced sweeping regulatory changes intended to bolster confidence among consumers and trading partners. She also increased the number of cattle to be tested to determine the prevalence of the disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE.
Federal authorities killed more than 700 cattle in three states as a precaution, including Madrigal's calves. One calf in the herd had been born to the infected cow weeks earlier but was not tagged and could not be identified, so the entire herd was killed.
"Before that, I was thinking I was going to have a nice Christmas. After that, I spent nights awake," Madrigal, 35, said.
He said the Agriculture Department paid him fair-market value for the calves in January before shipping them offsite to be killed. It took him five months and hundreds of miles in travel to rebuild the herd, but he learned valuable lessons.
"Now I keep control of what I'm being sold. I receive a number for each cow, and I make sure all have ear tags. Everything else is the same -- the hard work is the same," he said with a smile.
Already, his herd is larger than it was before mad cow disease was discovered down the road. And US consumers barely missed a beat after the discovery.
Cattle prices were at a record high last fall before the mad cow announcement, at 97 cents per pound, up from the 2002 average of 67 cents per pound. They remain at about 85 cents per pound.
From the time the disease was discovered in Britain in the 1980s, the United States had taken steps to prepare in case it was ever found here, said Beth Johnson, special assistant to Veneman. "We are not going to stop," she said. "It's our key priority to make sure we continue to stay on top of this disease, as well as other animal diseases, to make sure we are protecting the public and the cattlemen."