For ranchers like Bill Donald, the resumption of beef trade with Japan, two years after mad-cow disease turned up in this country, would...

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BILLINGS, Mont. — For ranchers like Bill Donald, the resumption of beef trade with Japan, two years after mad-cow disease turned up in this country, would be huge. Still, he’s not ready to sell his own cattle to Japan, and he’s not alone.

“I think most ranchers won’t bother with it this first year,” the south-central Montana rancher said. “There are a lot of hoops to jump through.”

New requirements for doing business in Japan could keep many producers from tapping that once-lucrative market — at least initially. Selling beef to Japan will mean maintaining a paper trail from the ranch to the feedlot to the slaughterhouse, to verify cattle are killed at 20 months of age or younger. The levels of infection for mad-cow disease are believed to rise with age, and plans for resuming trade have been based on that cutoff.

But birth records alone won’t do, and in many cases, producers will need third-party verification of their documents and herds for corroboration, according to beef experts at Iowa State University. It will cost ranchers anywhere from 50 cents a head to $1.25 a head, by one estimate, just to put information into a database.

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“It seems very few people know about this kind of stuff, but the writing’s been on the wall about this a long time,” said John Lawrence, a livestock economist who directs the Iowa Beef Center at Iowa State and who has tracked and written on the issue.

U.S. agricultural and political leaders have been pushing hard for the reopening of the Japanese market, which had previously been the biggest overseas market for U.S. beef. Japan bought more than $1 billion worth in 2003 before the discovery of mad-cow disease in a Washington state cow in December 2003.

Japan also has made moves toward resuming limited trade. A final report on the safety of U.S. beef, expected at any time, could clear the way for that as early as this month, industry and government officials said.

Major meatpackers and dozens of feedlots have paperwork and plans in order, but many ranchers are still confused or in the dark about what they must do to qualify for the Japanese market, industry leaders and experts say.

“I’ll be honest with you. I think ranchers, as you look at them, are sitting there asking, ‘What are we supposed to be doing?’ ” said John Paterson, an extension beef specialist at Montana State University in Bozeman, who admits to being a bit fuzzy himself on some of the finer points.

Despite a framework for trade outlined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, some cattlemen groups have been careful about advising ranchers on how best to position themselves, choosing to wait for the final word from Japan.

“The devil will be in the details,” said Steve Pilcher, executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, “and it’s a matter of me not trusting Japan totally.”