For more than a decade, computer technicians have known about the "year 2000" computer problem - a tiny glitch in millions of computer programs that could bring government and industry to a standstill if it's not fixed.

News of the computer bug, which could shut down computers at midnight, Dec. 31, 1999, has filtered down to the public. By now, most cattle producers have probably heard about the problem and they may assume it won't impact their business. That assumption could cost them money.

"For the most part, the guy out on the range is going to be affected like the rest of us," says Paul Marvin, president of Global Knowledge Group, which provides Web site and other computer services for the beef industry.

Computers Run The World For example, computers run meat packing lines, beef industry Internet sites and commodities trading. They handle data for banks, credit rating agencies, government loan programs and the IRS. They run herd management and ranch accounting programs. And they control the beef supply chain starting at supermarkets, which use computers to track beef inventories and decide when to order more. Any of these functions - and many more - could be fouled up by the year 2000 problem.

The problem was set in motion years ago when software designers came up with an ingenious way to save precious computer program space. Instead of writing out four digit dates, they abbreviated them with just two. Thus, 1998 became 98 and the year 2000 became 00. Computers have no trouble interpreting 98 as 1998. Unfortunately, they read 00 as 1900 and become disoriented. Some foul up their intended functions. Others grind to a halt.

For example, when automobile manufacturers simulated the year 2000 on computerized robots used in car assembly lines, some of the robots froze in place. If not fixed, the entire assembly line would have to stop and the factory shut down.

The same could happen to the beef industry if computers fail to place orders that keep the supply chain running from ranch to feedlot to meat packing line to supermarket. Or computers could produce erroneous inventory numbers, says Dave Ghosh, chief executive officer of Ravel Software, of San Jose, CA. Either scenario would disrupt the beef supply line.

Each instance of the year 2000 problem is easy to correct. But overall the problem is so widespread that American industry expects to spend $300 billion -600 billion to fix it. And even a few instances left unfixed could wreak havoc.

Fortunately, private industry has aggressively tackled the year 2000 problem. Automobile assembly lines probably won't stop. Nor is the beef supply chain likely to break down.

"Private industry has been working on this for some time," says Joe Young, president of Professional Cattle Consultants, which supplies data management and information services for the cattle industry. "If we had a major packer go down for two weeks, the ripple would go back to the cow-calf man. But I can't believe that's going to happen.

"The government is another can of worms," says Young. "It's a potential disaster. I would have thought with all the time the government had, they'd have solved the problem. Private enterprise will be forced to fix the problem or lose all their customers. Unfortunately, the government has us as their customers and we can't fire them."

Agencies to watch include Social Security, the IRS and the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees airline safety and the air traffic control system.

The IRS could lose track of your quarterly business tax payments, then accuse you of not paying. Social Security could fail to issue checks to retired ranchers. Air travel could become more hazardous every time you fly to a beef industry convention or to another city to sign loan papers.

Trouble In The Air "I would definitely wait a couple of months before I start flying in the year 2000 just to make sure everything works," says Global Knowledge Group's Marvin. "I'll drive or postpone trips until later in the year."

There is another danger - that ranchers will fail to fix or replace old software, thus fouling their herd management or accounting systems.

"Any software, and it doesn't matter what it is, needs to be year 2000 compliant," says Harold Bowman, president of Bowman Farms Systems Inc., producer of CattlePro herd management software. His company has introduced English, Spanish and Australian versions of CattlePro 2000, which he says is fully year 2000 compliant.

The risk lies not only in off-the-shelf software, but in customized software. "If you have a customized package, the entire program must be checked and fixed, or replaced," warns Ravel Software's Dave Ghosh. "An upgrade from the manufacturer won't fix customized programs."

The bottom line is simple: First, solve your own year 2000 problems. Once you think you've got the problem licked, run repeated tests to make sure it really is fixed. And if your ranch system interacts with other computer systems, test the two of them together.

Second, realize that some of the businesses and government institutions you do business with may not be ready when the next century dawns. Find out who they are, and prepare a game plan to minimize business disruptions.

Third, plan on something going wrong. Nobody knows for sure what's going to happen on New Year's day, 2000. But the ranch industry is, for better or worse, in the hands of computers. With that in mind, anything could happen. So, fasten your seat belts. It might be a bumpy ride.