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It’s all in the brand

Rob Sabo

Nevada ranchers think tried-and-true methods of branding will serve just fine to meet modern-day needs for livestock identification.

Cattlemen worry that a new rule proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service could hurt the beef industry in Nevada, says J.J. Goicoechea, a rancher in White Pine County and newly elected head of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association.

The USDA, in an effort to better account for beef that has crossed state lines in the event of an outbreak of animal disease, has proposed a traceability system for all domestic beef.

Under the proposed rule, livestock that cross state lines must be officially identified and accompanied by an interstate certificate of veterinary inspection or other documentation, such as owner-shipper statements or brand certificates.

The proposed rule calls for use of low-cost technology for identification, such as metal ear tags for cattle. Although the rule sounds simple, Goicoechea says it could significantly increase production costs for Nevada ranchers.

In Nevada, branding should stand in place of an additional tagging system, he says.

“The traceability rule is basically, ‘Where did the cattle come from, where did it originate, and where did it go.’ That is great, and we already can do that because of our use of brands.”

Nevada ranchers tag their herds with decades-old hot-iron brands that can be used to document the beef’s origin and ultimately, its destination, he says. Additional requirements for traceability, such as metal ear tags or even RFID tags, could make exporting cattle more difficult and for Nevada’s largest cattle ranchers to conduct business.

Ranchers in northern Nevada raise herds with 3,000 or more steers. Putting each steer through a chute to tag it with an alpha-numeric code, and then later recording that code before cattle are placed on trucks for shipping, places a significant financial burden on Nevada ranchers because almost all the beef raised in the state crosses state lines for fattening before slaughter, Goicoechea says.

Cattle from Nevada predominately are shipped to California, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, where they feed on nutrient-rich grass pastures for a season to add girth before heading to a feedlot for additional fattening.

“We are afraid that it will inhibit commerce,” says Goicoechea, who also is a licensed veterinarian. “This is an unfunded mandate. The process is time-consuming to either scan an RFID tagged to the ear or manually record that number. The question is, are ranchers able to do it themselves, or are us vets going to have to go out and individually record numbers? If so, that becomes very costly for the producer.”

Despite record prices for Nevada-raised cattle light calves in the 600-pound range are bringing in between $800 and $850 per head, while feeder calves weighing between 800 and 900 pounds are bringing in about $1,000 a head Goicoechea says margins remain thin. The rising cost of fuel, feed and vaccination are eroding profit.

The Nevada Cattlemen’s Association is lobbying for branding to stand in for any additional tagging requirements. The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has stated that due to the prevalence of other forms of identifications in certain regions, such as northeastern Nevada, alternative forms of identification such as brands can stand in upon approval.

“We want to use brands so as to not slow down commerce,” Goicoechea says. “We are an export state, and we don’t have a processing plant outside of Wolf Pack Meats. We can’t finish our cattle here we don’t have the grain or commodities or climate, so we have got to protect our export status in this state.

“Our state has proven through the use of brands that we can prove where beef came from, and I think that should suffice.”

The USDA is taking public comments on the matter through Dec. 9 and will make its ruling next year.

“We are proposing a flexible approach in which states and tribes can develop systems for tracing animals that work best for them and for producers in their jurisdiction,” says Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “This approach offers great flexibility at the state and local level and addresses gaps in our disease response efforts.”