OMAHA, Neb. -- Ranchers welcomed Japan's decision Monday to ease restrictions on U.S. beef imports, saying it will provide a boost to the American meat industry but cautioning that it will take time before exports to Japan reach their levels of a decade ago.Japan is one of the biggest importers of U.S. beef, despite restrictions that for years haven't allowed the import of beef from cattle older than 20 months instead of the industry standard of 30 months. Those restricted imports were only allowed after Japan banned U.S. beef altogether in 2003 after the U.S. recorded its first case of mad cow disease. The news of the expanded export market is especially welcome now because the beef industry has been hurt by several years of high feed prices and the drought that hit cattle country, said J.D. Alexander, president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association."It's a great shot in the arm," said Alexander, who runs a feedlot and corn farm near Pilger, in northeast Nebraska. "This is going to help the profitability of the beef industry."