Livid over livestock


Just 18 months ago, ranchers effectively defeated a voluntary federal program to trace disease among their livestock. Now U.S. Department of Agriculture officials are coming back to the traceability table with mandatory interstate livestock trade regulations they hope will kick disease out of the barn and are improved enough to overcome rancher resistance.

The agriculture department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service published a rule Thursday that would require a national minimum standard form of identification and inspection for cattle, other livestock and poultry transported between states.

The rule creates a new system for  tracking diseased animals -- which, currently, the USDA and states don't do very well.

"Disease investigations for bovine tuberculosis frequently now exceed 150 days," the ag department wrote in the Federal Register.

This matters because officials need to track other animals exposed to the diseased—to protect the food supply from food-borne illnesses, monitor animal health, lessen economic impacts to the agricultural industry and, some say, to make foreign exports more competitive. The discovery of the United States' first case of mad cow disease in 2003 spurred the start of the process to track animal disease outbreaks throughout the chain more quickly.  Administrators believe individual identification of animals will help them corner an animal disease incident faster. Animal disease traceability lets officials know exactly where an at-risk or diseased animal came from and when it was there.

Officials identified ear tags as the preferred form of identification for cattle. And cows are the species the department feels has the least comprehensive regulation in regard to tracking of movements and identification. But they didn't throw out the Western hot-iron brand completely. As an appeasement to those biased toward the brand, the rule allowed states and tribes to use branding as an alternative to official forms of ID if animal health officials mutually agreed on that form for tracking. The rule would also apply to bison, sheep and goats, horses, poultry, captive deer and elk, and swine.


This new rule is the latest iteration on the National Animal Identification System, a six-year effort to implement traceability that bit the dust in 2010, after ranchers and farmers turned their backs on it. The department hoped the voluntary program would trace a diseased animal within 48 hours through animal identification and eventually the tracking of livestock movements.

But ranchers and farmers protested the government regulation by ignoring it, and the program languished in its final years. In 2009, just 36 percent of them participated. The department abandoned the program in February 2010 and returned to the drawing table, this time inviting the input of the industry, stakeholders and public.

Under the proposed rule, only animals moving between states would need the official identification. And this new iteration of ID rules may quell arguments that echo opposition for the previous program the government attempted to implement in the early 2000s like government regulation and additional cost to smaller ranches (ear tags cost about $1 a piece.)

Regulation is largely put on states and tribes for now, and forms of identification other than ear tags are acceptable as long as they are agreed upon, lessening cost to implement the rule. But to some, the rise of the ear tag in favor of brands signals another step toward the end of the wild West. Cattle branding in the West is more than 100 years old. Historic brands like the balloon bar, in states like Washington, date back to 1968. In New Mexico, the state's first cattle branding laws occurred in 1885 and Spanish cattle brands date back to the 1700s, says New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum curator Cameron Saffell.

And brands mean more than marks to many families. Some ranch and farm groups were upset branding would no longer be considered an official form of identification, including R-CALF USA, a national cattle producers association.

Other groups like the National Farmers Union, Livestock Marketing Association, American Veterinary Medical Association favored or remained open to the rule. And some ranchers see its importance. The Wyoming Livestock Board did a casual survey of cattle producers. More than 80 percent saw the need for disease traceability within 48 hours.

It also appears ear tags may already be used by many in the industry. In a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Animal Health Monitoring System in 2007 and 2008, researchers found that plastic ear tags were the most common form of identification for cows and calves in 24 states surveyed, including six Western states.

The department says some of the problems with cattle identification stem from its brucellosis vaccination requirements in the 1980s. Vaccination of female calves also required official identification in the form of tattoos and ear tags. In 1988, the program provided official identification for 10 million calves and brucellosis was wiped out. Without vaccination requirements fueling official identification of calves the number of identified calves dropped to 3 million in 2010.

Whether the government's latest attempt to track animals will gain rancher favor while also doing what it needs to do--track the source of sickness in livestock populations--remains uncertain.

Public comments can be submitted today through November 9.

Kimberly Hirai is an intern at High Country News.

Image courtesy Flickr user CameliaTWU.

Bill Gore
Bill Gore Subscriber
Aug 15, 2011 04:37 PM
Kimberly-I wish this really was about ensuring the safety of the food supply for the consumer. Unfortunately, the real purpose of the NAIS is to put the regulatory screws to small ranchers and farmers, while big agribusiness is effectively exempted from these requirements, or for whom the costs are not material. Why, you may ask, would large operators support the imposition of yet more regulation? Easy: eliminate the competition from small operators, then jack up prices to the consumer. John D. Rockefeller Senior said it best:"Competition is a sin."
Fact: BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or 'mad cow disease') originated in the feed lots of very large processors, where the spinal columns of slaughtered sheep were 'reprocessed' or ground up and added to cattle feed (along with sawdust, newspaper and an alphabet soup of chemicals and hormones) in order to gain more marginal profit from each slaughtered sheep.

Increasingly, educated consumers are demanding safe local food from small organic producers. The big food conglomerates know this and are simply using their clout with the federal government to put small producers out of business. All in the name of 'safety'.

Honestly, I expect a more balanced treatment of this subject from High Country News. Small ranchers and farmers are some of the deepest, most genuine environmentalists around. We live environmental protection every day of our lives.
Kimberly Hirai
Kimberly Hirai Subscriber
Aug 16, 2011 04:16 PM
Dear Mr. Gore,

Thank you for your comment. The point of this blog was make readers aware that the USDA is trying to create an animal identification system which is an update to the NAIS. That program failed.

I did attempt to address some small rancher concerns by writing about the changing status of the hot-iron brand as a form of official identification, as well as arguments against the former NAIS program including "government regulation and additional cost to smaller ranches (ear tags cost about $1 a piece)."

It seems this new iteration attempts to address some of the concerns ranchers had about the original NAIS. But it is also too early to tell, since a lot of this comes down to the ability of states to implement a system with a formally agreed upon form of identification.

However, I am continuing to follow the issue and will be tracking comments and news on the proposed rule.
Judy Burnett
Judy Burnett Subscriber
Aug 19, 2011 12:34 PM
Kimberly, please do an in depth investigation of Mr Gore's concerns. As an educated consumer I have to agree with his take on your article even given it's intent with regard to NAIS. Please take his and my and many others for that matter, concerns to heart. Looking forward to what you discover. Keep up the great writing.
All the best, Judy Burnett
Kaye & Linda Vanfossan
Kaye & Linda Vanfossan
Aug 20, 2011 11:54 AM
Ear tags never stopped any disease. Ear tags are easily lost. Kimberly, you need to dig deeper to find out the real reason this movement failed in the past. It affects many more than just farmers and ranchers; every backyard breeder and pet owner will be affected in ways you wouldn't believe. If passed in it's original form, NAIS would have given the Feds the power to come onto any farm, ranch, pasture or backyard, without notice to anyone, and confiscate ANY animal they deemed unsafe for ANY reason, with no recourse to the owner. Furthermore, all locations where animals are kept are registered in a permanent database along with detailed information on owners/operators. The Federal government tried to get this going on a "voluntary" basis by using the scare tactics, but enough people saw through that. Now, it's going to be forced on us and, as your article stated, many small ranchers/breeders will be forced out of business. Mr. Gore is completely right in his assessment.
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder Subscriber
Aug 23, 2011 05:06 PM
Let's look at another fact. R-CALF, while it has done some good things, has been opposing testing systems since at least 2007. Some of that may be due to perceived bias in the tests as constructed. Some of that, though, I suspect, is just blanket opposition to testing.