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?”