The hot-iron brand, the West’s most recognized ownership stamp for 150 years, isn’t grading well with federal officials searching for uniform ways of identifying livestock.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected to propose new “farm to fork” identification rules for tracing animals making their way from the ranch to the grocery refrigerator case. The identification requirements are expected to help regulators trace diseases and other problems back to the source.
But the potential exclusion of brands as a means of identifying animals sold across state lines has angered ranchers, who say the issue basically makes brands irrelevant. The USDA in March announced that ear tags will be the official cattle ID. Brands would only be used when states make special arrangements.
“Fourteen states use brands as a primary means of identification, and the other states are not equipped to use and record brands,” explained Gilles Stockton, a Montana rancher and USDA adviser who discouraged the government from not recognizing brands in their new program. “There is, therefore, pressure to not accept brands as a means of official identification.”
Ear tags were the ID of states with large indoor livestock operations, such as pig farms or dairies where animals live in stalls and are easy to keep track of.
But, in states with wide open ranges, where one rancher’s livestock will often roam and commingle with animals from another ranch, ear tags are considered inferior. Tags fall out. They’re also hard to read from a distance; whereas, brands are there for life and can be spotted fairly easily through a pair of binoculars.
In the stockyards, brand inspectors quickly identify which animals belong to which cowboy by cracking open the pages of their state brand registry so see who owns the symbol in the animal’s hide.
News that ear tags, not brands, would be the official identifier in all 50 states and tribal nations quickly became a political issue.
“The brand is a part of our ranching heritage and a long accepted method of animal identification,” said Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont, in a letter Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
Rehberg, like many brand proponents, argued that designating ear tags as the official ID for cattle weakens the hot brand’s clout. Previous ID proposals allowed brands for interstate trade as long as an inspection certificate was also included.
“I bet the 14 states that use brands are the ones that produce the most beef,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.
Two years ago, when the USDA rolled out a tag-based national animal identification system that required ranchers to report any change in the animals whereabouts to the government within 24 hours, Tester and Republican Mike Enzi, R-Wyo, led a vote in the Senate to gut funding from the program.
The USDA had argued the program was needed to trace disease.
The new program, expected to be posted in the Federal Register by the end of the month, is also being promoted as a disease preventer. Stockton, who sat on Vilsack’s Advisory Committee on Animal Health, said the disease argument doesn’t make sense.
A slowly emerging disease like foot and mouth disease would be in the animal for months before it ever produced recognizable symptoms, Stockton said. By that time, disease exposure would have occurred and ear tags wouldn’t matter.
Stockton also said he’s concerned the USDA won’t receive funding to help state livestock agencies create the record systems needed to execute the ID program.