Browsing Posts tagged western

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?”

Seattle PI

Western Rangers fight push to give up brands

Craig and Mary K. Vejraska pose at their cattle ranch June 17, 2011, in Omak, Wash. They support the use of cattle brands in a new animal identification program. Photo: Shannon Dininny / AP

Craig and Mary K. Vejraska pose at their cattle ranch June 17, 2011, in Omak, Wash. They support the use of cattle brands in a new animal identification program. Photo: Shannon Dininny / AP

OMAK, Wash. (AP) — Ranchers have long used brands to keep track of their cattle and deter rustlers, but many now fear branding will become just another relic of the Old West as federal regulators look for new ways to track meat from hoof to plate.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been trying for years to develop a program that would allow regulators to pinpoint animals’ location with 48 hours of a disease possibility. The political pressure has become greater as other nations demand the U.S. adapt a costly electronic system to trace exported meat back to the farm. Other countries are attempting to enforce a government numbering system, such as Canada and Australia, hoping for a competitive advantage which is not yet proven.

After seeing little success with a voluntary tracking program, the USDA has said it will require farmers and ranchers to be able to trace all livestock and meat shipped or sold across state lines. The USDA’s final proposal is due out this summer, and while it’s leaving it up to states and tribes to decide what kind of tracking to implement, it’s pushing for high-cost ear tags.

Whether states also want to recognize brands is up to them, said Abby Yigzaw, spokeswoman for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

That’s not enough for some cattle ranchers, who are angered by what they see as big-footing by the federal government. Ranchers note that brands are permanent, while ear tags can fall out. But more than anything, support for brands is about holding on to a piece of the past that is proven to work economically.

“It’s just one of the things that keeps the honest people honest,” said Craig Vejraska, whose cattle sport the letter V, surrounded by a circle, on their left flank as they roam across 300,000 acres of tribal and national forest in Washington state. “It’s a tradition.”

Bill Bullard of R-Calf USA, an advocacy group for ranchers, said brands provide a permanent means of identification that has proven instrumental in helping track cases of brucellosis and eradicate it from the domestic herd.

“We find this decision outrageous that the USDA would level a direct attack on what is an iconic symbol of our industry and what has been a tried, proven and effective means of conducting disease trace backs,” Bullard said.

One reason federal officials haven’t embraced brands is that they aren’t used nationwide, said Bill Donald, a Melville, Mont., rancher and current president of the National Cattlemen‘s Beef Association, which represents both ranchers and meatpackers. Fewer than 20 states enforce brand laws to keep tabs on cattle, and nearly all are in the West or Midwest. However, the Department of Agriculture does record a registered brand in every state and charges a fee.

Brands are used in the East, even though ranches are smaller and herds don’t graze on public lands. They still help prevent theft.

Brands haven’t been needed in the East, where farms are smaller and herds don’t graze on public lands.

“Being from a brand state in Montana, I have learned firsthand that our animal trace back should include brand laws,” Donald said. “But they should all be used to complement a national system of identification.”

In Texas, the nation’s No. 1 beef producer, brands are registered at the county level, which means there could be duplicates within the state. For that reason, members of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association understand the USDA’s position, said Eldon White, the group’s executive vice president. But, they also don’t want brands eliminated.

Cattle rancher Craig Vejraska shows off one of his brands at his ranch in Omak, Wash. on June 17, 2011. Vejraska supports the use of cattle brands in a new animal identification program. Photo: Shannon Dininny / AP

Cattle rancher Craig Vejraska shows off one of his brands at his
ranch in Omak, Wash. on June 17, 2011. Vejraska supports the use of
cattle brands in a new animal identification program.
Photo: Shannon Dininny
/ AP

“Brands are a very important method of owner identification in Texas and will continue to be so,” White said. “We would be very concerned and would fight against a movement to eliminate the use of brands altogether.”

But the prospect of pairing brands with some other means of identification hasn’t mollified Western ranchers like Vejraska.

As his pickup bounced along a rutted, dirt road in the Okanogan National Forest, Vejraska pointed out cattle that bear his brand grazing in a meadow. Ear tags that dangle can easily get lost when animals graze in brush, next to fence lines or in harsh weather out on the range, he said.

“Our brand is 50 years old. It’s an essential identifier up here when you’re on the range,” he said. “I see my circle-V, and I know it’s mine.”

Go

Go

SAN ANGELO, Texas — Since a new framework for animal disease traceability was introduced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture last year, cattle raisers have been up in arms for fear that the centuries-old hot-iron branding methods may be on the way out.

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 the ranch to feedlots and the slaughterhouse.

Even as the USDA says it never set out to undermine the traditional brand, cattlemen feel that when the government steps in it will make things more complex. They also fear the withdrawal of federal support for branding might embolden animal-rights activists who call the practice barbaric.

The new rules set to replace the National Animal Identification System were strongly opposed by numerous livestock industries and associations, including Fort Worth-based Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.

Although Western movies showing cowboys branding cattle with a hot iron have created the image that the practice started in the Old West, documented history gives verification the practice goes back thousands of years to the days of the ancient Greeks, Arabians, Romans and Egyptians.

Branding was actually introduced to the New World in 1541 by Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez. Branding of cattle became common in the United States after the Civil War. It was said that brands of every shape and design were on Longhorns coming out of Texas during the great trail drives of the 1800s.

Brands are registered in Texas by the county clerk of the county in which a rancher runs livestock. The brand must be registered by the county clerk for the brand to be considered a legal means of ownership. Texas brands have to be re-registered every 10 years.

When I worked for The Cattleman magazine in Fort Worth during the mid-1960s, a favorite assignment was visiting the brand department to research histories of cattle brands. The brands allow TSCRA special rangers quick identification of stolen cattle.

The cattle raisers association has 29 special rangers stationed strategically throughout Texas and Oklahoma who have in-depth knowledge of the cattle industry and are trained in facets of law enforcement. All are commissioned as special rangers by the Texas Department of Public Safety and Oklahoma’s law enforcement agency.

TSCRA market inspectors aid the special rangers by collecting brands and other identifying marks on 4 million to 5 million cattle sold at 115 livestock markets each year. The market inspectors report their findings to TSCRA’s Fort Worth headquarters, where the information is entered in a database retrieval system. It is that database a special ranger checks when receiving a theft call.

“Branding’s the simplest, most efficient way to do it. Why change?” Wil Bledsoe, a Hugo, Colo., rancher, recently told the Wall Street Journal.

“It is a great deal easier in court when stolen animals are fire branded. Prosecutors prefer to try cases where the animals have been branded,” said Scott Williamson of Seymour, a TSCRA special ranger.

Modern cattle rustlers would delight in the current highly promoted electronic ID. Any cattle rustler could easily remove, replace, change and/or cut off ear tags and electronic pins.

The goal of the new USDA framework should be to enable the cattle industry, state and federal animal health officials to respond rapidly and effectively to animal health emergencies, say TSCRA officials.

Cattle raisers remain engaged with state and federal animal health officials to ensure that any animal disease traceability program is solely for the purpose of responding rapidly and effectively to animal health emergencies and does not affect ranchers’ ability to market cattle, officials said.

Jerry Lackey writes about agriculture. Contact him at jlackey@wcc.net or 325-949-2291.

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