By Lisa M. Krieger, San Jose Mercury News, Jan. 10, 2012
One of the West’s most enduring symbols is fading like a red-hot branding iron cools to ashen gray.
With concerns over disease and global trade trumping tradition, federal regulators want ranchers to swap the old-fashioned cattle brand for electronic ear tags to quickly and reliably identify livestock that is shipped across state lines.
Ranchers from Livermore to Laytonville accept the inevitability but lament the passing of a ritual older than America—the smell of trampled sagebrush and burned hide, the sound of whinnying horses, songs around campfires and friendly boasts among friends.
"Cowboys are said to ride for the brand. It’s hard to imagine anyone riding for an ear tag," said Jon Christensen, executive director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University.
The debate over the USDA proposal, with a final rule expected within months, “is not just a fight over the best way to identify, track and ensure the ownership and safety of cattle,” Christensen said. “This is a battle over a powerful Western icon.”
But the discovery in late 2003 of a cow in rural Washington infected with mad cow disease inspired federal officials to find a better way to instantly track livestock. They feared that the U.S. could suffer the same fate as the United Kingdom, which quarantined and killed tens of thousands of animals after a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, devastating its agricultural economy.
The USDA wants every cow that is moved between states to have a unique numerical ID, electronically embedded into an RFID ear tag, to make it easier to track animals from the ranch to feedlots and the slaughterhouse. Brands would be allowed only if individual states create agreements to recognize one another’s brands. Then, if a sick animal is found, the source of illness could be tracked—and isolated—within hours.
And, lucrative global markets, such as Japan, are demanding that meat be proved safe and “traceable” before entering the country.
Once every cow has an RFID tag, the brand—as a vital identification mark—would be less critical.
Hot-iron brands have played an enduring and beloved role—they’re family logos, like a ranching coat of arms—since they were introduced to the New World in 1541 by Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes, whose cattle were singed with three crosses.
They landed in history books, films and TV shows after the great Longhorn trail drives out of Texas during the 1800s. But with growing awareness of animal rights, critics have denounced the practice as cruel.
Still, no 15-character alphanumeric identification code can ever replace a “Lazy J,” “Hanging R” or “Flying 45,” said Bill Bullard of the Billings, Mont.-based Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America.
"The government is giving in to international pressure to adopt a one-size-fits-all system that replaces the American tradition of branding, which has been used for centuries successfully," he said. "Our ability to control and eradicate disease has earned us the envy of the world—and now the USDA proposes to throw out an integral part of our program."
Branding is the simplest and most efficient way to identify a cow, he said. He worries that cattle could lose their tags in fencing or trees. Rustlers could easily cut them off. And the cost of the RFID tag—$2 to $3 per animal—could add new economic hardship to small family ranchers, he said.
The California Cattlemen’s Association also opposes the proposal, saying it seeks a program that avoids unnecessary costs and does not impose any “governments-induced delays in the speed of commerce.”
The modern beef industry is highly mobile, posing new risks—and rewards, said Livermore rancher Darrel Sweet, who runs Black Angus on his prosperous 900-acre ranch near the Altamont Pass.
"What’s changed is nationalization, globalization—and transportation," Sweet said. "Now it’s not uncommon for trucks to move cattle from right here in Central California to every Western state, or Texas, Kansas, even Hawaii."
"There’s no doubt, from a disease standpoint, we need to trace back, so we can figure out, as rapidly as possible, where the animal came from," said Sweet, as he surveyed his herd from his truck. "That’s economic viability for me—because if the outbreak is somewhere else, I don’t have to quarantine my whole herd."
Interstate shipping creates challenges for branding, because ranchers in different states may share the same brand. Many states don’t even have brands.
But brands still play a critical role. He asked: When a fence breaks, and your cattle get mixed up with neighbors’ herds, who wants to catch each cow and inspect each ear to sort them out? And insurers still rely on brands to prove ownership, he noted.