Looks like cowboys left their mark on U.S. animal identification policy.

Two years after rancher tempers burned red hot over the possible rejection of hot-iron brands for identifying cattle moving interstate, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled a new brand-friendly final rule for animal disease traceability.

"The final rule meets the diverse needs of the countryside, where states and tribes can develop systems for tracking animals that work best for them and their producers,” Vilsack said during a Thursday news conference.

In short, after years of negotiating terms for tracing animals from the slaughterhouse to the farm gate, the USDA has decided to let states and tribes select their own rules within a broad set of guidelines. Hot-iron brands, the preferred identification among Western ranchers with range animals, pass muster provided governments on the sending and receiving ends of transactions approve.

The rule represents a big shift for the USDA, which three years ago planned to use a barcode-like scanning system to track livestock and poultry from birth to butcher shop. The National Animal Identification System was presented as a way to track disease. Branding wouldn’t have been recognized as legitimate identification for animals moving across state lines or off tribal lands. Indoor agriculture businesses, like poultry and pig farms, didn’t object, but ranchers with range animals said the rules were unworkable for livestock put out to pasture.

Ranchers began pushing for the hot-iron brand as an NAIS alternative. After Western senators gutted funding for NAIS in early 2009, the USDA reconsidered its options.

“Based on what we’ve seen so far, it appears the USDA responded to several of the concerns we raised,” said Bill Bullard, president of the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America. “Hot-iron brands continue to be an official animal identification device and can be used in lieu of ear tags when both the shipping and receiving states agree to their use. Also, back tags can be used for animals destined for slaughter.”

Branding might be the only issue R-CALF USA and the Montana Stockgrowers Association agree on this year. The groups usually come down on opposite sides of federal government issues. Errol Rice, executive vice president of the Stockgrowers, said preserving the usefulness of hot-iron brands was important to his members, who also supported leaving cattle younger than 18 months out of the equation, which R-CALF also favored.

Vilsack said Thursday that traceability for animals 18 months and younger would be taken up later.

It was important to foreign buyers of U.S. beef that America get some form of traceability in place, Rice said. Foreign buyers worried about issues like mad-cow disease have demanded assurances that cattle could be traced back to the farm. U.S. competitors like Australia and Canada complied with those demands and made sales while the U.S. weighed its options.

However, meat exporters have created their own identification schemes to satisfy foreign buyers in the years since NAIS ran aground. Ranchers willing to comply with those terms have made another $5 to $15 a head. The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service signs off on those private tracing programs, making then popular with foreign buyers. Ranchers who sign off on hormone-free traceability programs receive up to $100. The hormone-free status makes beef marketable in Europe.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who was responsible for gutting NAIS funding and steering the USDA toward hot iron brands, said Thursday that he liked what he had heard so far about the USDA's final rule, which will be published Dec. 28.

“USDA’s latest effort to track animal diseases is a welcome upgrade from the failed Animal ID program,” Tester said in a prepared statement. “ I appreciate the USDA incorporating feedback from ranchers throughout Montana into its new proposal and look forward to studying it carefully to make sure it works for Montana.”


Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.

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