Prior to enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), I did a lot of work in Mexico for the U.S. Grains Council. Because Mexico is a grain-deficit country, many feedlots use U.S. grain. My role was to provide consulting help, but on occasion I was obliged to speak on the subject of NAFTA.

Speaking on behalf of free trade was not my favorite duty. The reason was the vehement reaction that usually came from the crowd. At that time, the tariffs on U.S. beef were facing elimination. For that reason, many Mexican cattlemen were bitterly opposed.

Even though NAFTA's only direct change with respect to our industry was removal of tariffs on U.S. beef, surprisingly many U.S. cattlemen were and remain opposed.

Rumor and Misinformation Recently, I received a call from a member of R-CALF that surprised and shocked me. The caller from South Dakota explained that a great many ranchers ge nuinely believe that calves from Mexico depress the U.S. market.

I explained that for the last 30 years, Mexico has exported roughly the same number of calves -- usually between 500,000 and 1 million (700,000 in 1998) -- about 3-4% of the U.S. calf supply.

But, this caller asked, 'Do you believe the numbers are correct?' I answered that APHIS inspects and gives every calf a numbered eartag. What came next stunned me. The caller said many within R-CALF believe calves are being smuggled across the border big time.

I was dumbstruck. How could anyone believe such a thing given that:

*Each border state has brand inspectors controlling the movement of cattle.

*Both the USDA and state agencies have their own independent trackers riding the border.

*Border Patrol personnel drive and fly the border day and night.

*And, surveillance is made by The Drug Enforcement Agency and U.S. Customs.

I responded: 'If someone were cutting your fences and driving cattle through your ranch, wouldn't you know it? If someone was coming through your neighbor's ranch, how long would it be before you figured it out?'

The cattle business is a small world, and word travels fast. There's no doubt a few head come across, but to have any effect on our market it would take many hundreds of thousands. Aside from hundreds of personnel armed with night vision scopes and infrared trackers, how could something like this be kept quiet?

Australian cattle that cross legally as Mexican cattle is a concern -- but they would be counted in the official number. Since the number of cattle crossed last year is below years past, clearly this was not a major problem.

Because of TB regulations, the actual ranch Mexican cattle come from is supposed to be identified. While it may be that a few cattle slip through, our APHIS people and state brand inspectors get to know most of the Mexican ranchers, making wholesale fraud difficult. Last year, some Australian cattle were held up at the border, indicating the system does work.

An Offer You Shouldn't Refuse The bottom line is that the economics of the cattle business aren't good. There are solutions to our problems, but rather than working on solutions, most of us are looking for someone to blame.

Feedlots typically blame the packer; Western ranchers typically blame NAFTA; while Midwest and Southern cow-calf operators badmouth public lands ranchers. It's time for all this to stop.

If you really want to know why the market is depressed (and want to know how to turn it around); call, fax, write or e-mail my office. Ask for issues of my newsletter entitled, 'Understanding the Cattle Business' and 'Is the Packer to Blame?' Normally, my newsletter is sold on a subscription basis, but I will send it to you free of charge.

I am also willing to donate my time. I can't do this on an individual basis, (and I can't personally take individual phone calls), but if R-CALF or any state cattleman's association would like to visit the border as a group, I will arrange visits for you.

I will set up meetings with agents and veterinarians with APHIS (who inspect all the Mexican cattle that cross), USDA trackers and border rangers, Texas and New Mexico brand inspectors, client ranchers along the border (who will be glad to answer questions about potential smuggling), and client feedlots along the border that feed Mexican cattle.

I have no personal contacts in the Border Patrol, but I'm sure a visit to review their surveillance can be arranged.

If you can't take the time to meet with these people, I will arrange to set up a conference and bring them together. All I need is an assurance that your group would have enough attendance to warrant the effort.

Many readers believe I am a college professor, but I am actually a professional consultant. My only income is from consulting fees, book and newsletter sales. But this is so important I am willing to give away my time and newsletter issues that are relevant.

Instead of raising money for lawsuits, won't you take 15 minutes to read the real causes of our problems, and what can be done about them. Blaming each other not only doesn't help, it's counter-productive.

For free issues of 'Understanding the Cattle Business' and 'Is the Packer to Blame?' write to Dr. Price at 5803 Leasburg Dr., Las Cruces, NM 88005; e-mail; phone 505/525-1370; or fax 505/525-1394.