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.

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