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The Denver Post

As USDA turns to ear tags over brands, cattle ranchers fear end of tradition

Ordway rancher John Reid holds some of the irons he uses to brand livestock on his ranch, the Reid Cattle Co. The USDA is expected to release new interstate rules requiring individual cattle to be identified by a number stamped on an ear tag. (Aaron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post )

The future of the hot-iron brand, an icon of Western heritage, is at the center of a nearly decade-long battle over cattle identification and traceability.

“It’s the latest hot lightning rod,” said John Reid, an Ordway rancher who is past president of the Colorado Independent Cattle Growers Association.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected soon to release a draft of new regulations, which will remove the hot-iron brand from its list of official identification for cattle sold or shipped across state lines.

The new rules will require each animal to be identified by a number stamped on a removable ear tag.

States would still be able to use brands as official IDs within their boundaries.

Individual agreements between states can be reached to allow brands as official IDs for interstate movement — more complications.

Critics fear this is the beginning of the end for America’s centuries-old branding tradition.

“The federal government’s action sends a signal to the entire industry that the ear tag is a superior means of identification,” said Bill Bullard, chief executive of the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund.

Ranchers argue that ear tags can fall off or be stolen by thieves, so are not a good form of official ID.

State brand commissioner Rick Wahlert said nothing will change for the state’s cattle producers.

However, the new system is a critical element of participation in the interstate beef market, he said.

Negative reaction to the new rules, he said, “is really about change, and a fear of the government being in your business.”

Gerald Schreiber, a third-generation rancher in northeastern Colorado, already uses ear tags for identification within the herd but bristles at the new regulations.

“It sounds good on the surface, but anytime you get the Big Brother approach, I don’t trust it,” he said. “The brand has worked for 1000 years, I don’t know why they want to disregard it. In the West, branding is more than just a tradition; it’s our identity as ranches.”

First proposed in 2002, the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) was rolled out in 2004, but flatly rejected in USDA listening sessions by over 90% of the cattle producers.

Producers across the country are skeptical about the new program, which would require radio-frequency ear tags that would let cattle be tracked from slaughterhouse to birth.

Their concerns ranged from potential costs to confidentiality of information, including fears that animal-rights advocates would be able to gain information on ranchers through the use of the federal Freedom of Information Act.

“It got pretty ugly,” said Ordway rancher Reid.

From 2004 to 2009, the USDA spent $142 million on NAIS, according to a Congressional Research Service report to Congress. Because it was a voluntary program, less than 30 percent of cattle producers participated.

In February 2010, the USDA announced it was abandoning NAIS due to mass rejection by livestock producers. Now a new name and a new program has evolved called Animal Disease Traceability.

Loss of tradition

The draft of the proposed USDA rule was due in April but has been delayed. It is now expected to be released within weeks, followed by a 60- to 90-day period of public comment. It will take an additional 12 to 15 months before the final rule is released.

“Americans want two things,” Rohr said. “They want to know their food is safe, and they have an interest in knowing where their food comes from.”

Still, the plan to remove the hot-iron brand as an official method of ID across state lines has angered Westerners, who worry about a loss of tradition and the addition of more red tape to their businesses.

“The piece of the deal that is awfully hard for producers to understand is that most disease comes from meat processing plants more than individual cattle or cattle herds.” Reid said.

The brand is the oldest and more permanent form of herd identification, while ear tags, with their unique numbers, can easily fall off in brush and trucks where cattle frequent.

“So the question is,” said Reid, “do we need individual ID or is herd ID enough?”

Editor Comment:  Rumblings from US cattle producers over USDA removing branding, their time tested tool to prevent cattle rustling, has reached the businss ears at WALL STREET JOURNAL.  This article articulates the problem, yet straddles the fence of detail and fact.  First, the “inexpensive ear tag” mentioned costs from $7 to $26 per critter and in Australian tests over 32% are lost or destroyed within two years.  As the USDA promotes expensive electronic ear tag devices, no removable ear tag in history has held up in a court of law for livestock title — yet hot iron brands are permanent and conclusive.  Take a lesson from history, not a temporary attachment. USDA plastic-removable animal ID is “flawed thought” and WSJ knows it!


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The Bledsoe family and other ranchers across the West are resisting new government rules stating that branding will no longer be recognized as an official form of identification for interstate commerce. WSJ’s Stephanie Simon reports from Hugo, Colo.

HUGO, Colo.—In the chill of a damp spring morning, rancher Wil Bledsoe pressed two red-hot branding irons to the flank of a bellowing young calf. The smell of burning hair filled the barn.

When Mr. Bledsoe lifted the irons, the calf jumped up, wobbled a moment, then scampered back to his herd, a frying-pan logo seared into his shaggy hide.

Branding day has unfolded this way for generations on ranches all across the West. But ranchers from Colorado to Oregon, from Montana to Texas, worry that the tradition is under threat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced plans to rewrite its regulations so that hot-iron brands will no longer be recognized as an official form of identification for cattle sold or shipped across state lines.

Instead, the USDA wants every cow to have a unique numerical ID, stamped on an inexpensive ear tag, to make it easier to track animals from ranch to feedlot to slaughterhouse.

Branding Day at the Bledsoe Ranch

[SB10001424052702304066504576341754012316080]J.D. Schier watches cows walk into a different pen during a morning of branding on the Bledsoe ranch outside Hugo, Colo.

The proposed regulation won’t bar ranchers from branding their livestock. Individual states will be free to recognize brands as official ID if they so choose. And some ranchers who have tried the numerical IDs say they are no hassle and can actually be an asset, as they allow more detailed record-keeping on each individual cow or steer.

“It’s worked real well for us,” said Alex Johns, a resource director for the Seminole tribe of Florida, which has used bar-code ID tags for several years under a USDA pilot program. Mr. Johns said the tags helped the tribe sell their cattle at a premium price, as buyers had confidence the animals were tracked closely from birth and any health concerns noted and addressed. Keeping genetic records on heifers’ ID tags, he added, helped manage breeding programs to ensure birthing season brought healthy calves.

Nonetheless, ranchers across the West are up in arms.

The new rules, which the USDA will publish in draft form within weeks and which are scheduled to take effect in about a year, threaten “the United States cattle industry’s iconic, centuries-old, hot-iron brand,” a national coalition of cattle ranchers, known as R-Calf, wrote in a letter to the USDA. Rep. Dennis Rehberg, a Montana Republican and fifth-generation rancher, filed a similar protest.

Ranchers say they fear the withdrawal of federal support for branding might embolden animal-rights activists who call the practice barbaric. Some ranchers fear the new rules could even erode the legal standing of the brand as proof of ownership in cases of lost or stolen cattle.

The USDA says it never set out to undermine the traditional brand. Officials say the ID system will let them respond quickly if a diseased animal shows up in the meat production cycle, allowing them to track down other animals that a sick steer came into contact with.

Such track-backs have proved difficult for the USDA in the past. In 2003, 2005 and 2006, animals infected with mad-cow disease surfaced in the U.S. In each case, investigators had limited success identifying or locating livestock that might have been exposed to the sick cattle.

But branding advocates say none of the three animals was marked after birth with a registered brand from a U.S. ranch. One had been imported from Canada, one had no identification at all, and the third was traced to a Texas ranch that “kept very few herd records,” a USDA report on the case said.

Bill Bullard, chief executive officer of R-Calf, said tracing the animals would have been far easier had they been marked with an indelible brand, which, unlike an ear tag, cannot fall off or be cut out. Insisting that every one of the nation’s 93 million cattle has its own ID is “unnecessary, overly burdensome regulatory overreach,” he said.

Branding, brought to the New World in the 1500s by Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez, is today common across states like New Mexico, Texas and Wyoming. The marks can be seen from a distance and help ranchers settle ownership disputes when cattle trample fences and mix with a neighbor’s herd. Many states keep a registry of brands, so there won’t be two ranchers using the same Lazy J or Triple Dot. State brand inspectors say the practice also deters rustling, as thieves can’t remove the identifying mark.

And on many ranches, branding day is a communal affair. “The cultural tradition can’t be overemphasized,” said Taylor Haynes, a fourth-generation rancher outside Cheyenne, Wyo.

On the Bledsoe ranch in Eastern Colorado, family members spent a morning castrating, vaccinating and branding calves in practiced motions that took just 60 to 90 seconds an animal.

“When government steps in, they like to make things more complex,” Mr. Bledsoe said. “Branding’s the simplest, most efficient way to do it. Why change?”

Write to Stephanie Simon at

Branding is still key form of identification

By Candace Krebs
Posted Jun 20, 2010 @ 09:55 AM
PUEBLO, Colo. —

Scenes of brandings are one of the most iconic and enduring images of the ranching lifestyle. For centuries, brands have played a vital role in conveying title of ownership. Officials say this ancient method of identification is still one of the best.

But questions are occasionally raised. How are hot iron brands perceived by consumers who have increasingly heightened concerns about animal welfare and how much does it cost the industry in terms of discarded hides?

The Colorado Cattlemen’s Association discussed the issue during a committee meeting at the 143rd convention this week, where animal welfare and animal health topics held key positions on the agenda.

Rick Wahlert, the Colorado brand commissioner, said he has fielded several calls on branding in the last few months. In addition, at least one of the big packers had issued a letter discouraging branding or at least urging cattlemen to leave the mid-section of the hide brand-free.
“I don’t know if it’s a push, but they’re looking at it again,” he told a meeting of the brand and theft committee.

Virginia Patton of Canon City, the CCA member who chaired the committee, said the association wanted to bring the issue to the attention to members and begin a discussion. “It’s not something we’re going to solve today,” she said.

The estimated value of an unbranded hide is believed to be roughly $5 a head. Gary Shoun, Colorado’s long-time former chief brand inspector, said packers launched a similar push for unbranded hides back in 1994 but premiums never materialized.

“I’ve heard that as long as I’ve been in the cattle business,” added John Stulp of Lamar, the current Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture.
Colorado is the only brand state that gives ranchers the freedom to place the brand wherever they want on the animal. Branding at the hip is typically recommended. Patton said on her ranch they moved the brand away from the middle of the hide but never recovered a premium for doing it.

Wahlert pointed out that a producer who left cattle unbranded and lost just two of them to theft would be out $1,000, and questioned whether even $5 a head was worth it.

“If you don’t brand, it sure makes it hard for us,” he said to producers.

The committee also raised the issue of animal welfare perceptions.

Wahlert said cattle have thick hides and few nerve endings, minimizing the pain involved. A suggestion was made to the committee to document those findings and put them into some kind of scientific paper. “It can’t hurt to get ahead of the horse,” Wahlert nodded in response, referring to potential complaints from animal welfare advocates.

Alternative forms of identification were also debated. Wahlert said there was nowhere to apply electronic chips where they weren’t at risk of migrating in the body. A bolus was a safer option, he added, but at a cost of $10 an animal was not financially feasible.

While freeze branding is becoming more popular, Commissioner Stulp and State Veterinarian Keith Roehr said it is more difficult to apply freeze brands successfully and they work better on horses than cattle.

Colorado State University animal handling expert Temple Grandin, a featured speaker at the convention and recipient of CCA’s Honorary Life Member award, said branding was a low priority when it came to animal welfare concerns, reeling off a laundry list of other items cattle producers need to work on first.

“Heat stress and fatalities in feedyards is higher on my list than branding,” she said in an interview. “Branding is a lot more defensible than whacking big horns off of adult cattle, or taking half of the ear off for identification purposes, or waddling them. Castration and dehorning are more on the radar than branding is.”

That’s consistent with the views of a group called the National Association of Farm Animal Care, which endorses branding as a searing process that never draws blood, is self-sealing and creates a permanent ID in seconds that requires no future use of medication.

No other form of animal identification has ever held up in court for a conviction of theft, the group added. Last year state brand inspection programs visually inspected and documented 27 million cattle.

To defend branding and other essential management practices, Grandin said ranchers need to do a better job of explaining what they do on the farm and why they do it. In promoting the recent movie about her life, which aired on HBO television, she found that the public is curious to learn about day-to-day farm life.

“It wasn’t negative,” she said of the countless questions she received in places like New York City. “That’s what was interesting. They’re just curious.”

She mentioned a YouTube clip in which a young boy narrates a tour of his family’s feedlot as an example of positive public relations for the cattle industry.

“This industry is very isolated from the public, and when we’re attacked, we get the siege mentality,” she said. “But we need to engage with the public, not PR people talking, but the regular ranchers.”

State Veterinarian Keith Roehr credits Colorado as one of the first states to adopt animal care standards. He said brands remain an important tool used in cultures all over the world and that Colorado would most likely remain a brand state for many years to come.

“As a bridge to a new animal disease traceability framework, the brand program is more important now that it’s ever been,” he said. “It positions us to do what needs to be done. Brand states like Colorado have been recognized as much more prepared to move into the future. The brand commission is not required to collect individual animal identification now, but they are aware that might happen in the future, and their role could become even more important.”

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