For generations, ranchers have tracked their cattle by their brand.
Every year, they corral and rope the calves, and burn the ranch’s mark onto them.
Now the federal government would like to add a step to the process.
Agriculture officials want ranchers to start tracking their animals electronically, using microchips. The National Animal Identification System, which is currently a voluntary program, would follow a cow’s every move.
But for people like 64-year-old Culver rancher Marilyn Kasch, tracking cattle by their brand, the way she does it and the way her grandparents did it, works. The federal program, she said, would be a logistical nightmare.
The U.S. Agriculture Department began a pilot project with the identification system in 2004, a year after a cow with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, was discovered in Washington state. The discovery prompted the major supermarket chains operating in Oregon to pull beef from their shelves. More than a dozen countries banned American beef imports, and at one Oregon auction yard, the sale price for cattle dropped by nearly 20 cents a pound.
Prompted by the case, the federal government accelerated development of the identification system. The idea is to have a national identification program to track the source of the disease within 48 hours of an outbreak. If an outbreak can be traced to the source quickly, the hope is the entire U.S. beef market won’t be as impacted.
Over the last two months, the U.S. Agriculture Department held meetings on the program across the country, although none was held in Oregon.
But some Central Oregon ranchers are wary of how much the program could cost them and of giving the government too much control. Plus, they’re worried the program could become mandatory.
“It’s meant to help track animals that have disease — should there be some sort of outbreak,” said Barbi Riggs, a livestock agent with the Crook County office of Oregon State University’s Extension Service.
“There is still controversy and confusion. If it should become mandatory, who would pay for the costs and who has access to the information. … Most people in the West are reluctant to buy into it. We already have established some identification inspections.”
State Veterinarian Don Hansen said he’s heard concerns from ranchers about the identification system, but his priority is finding the most efficient way to control disease.
“We’re talking about contagious disease, and that is one of the major points of the NAIS system,” Hansen said. “It’s a system designed to curtail the spread of a contagious disease. It’s never been designed to be a food safety tool. It’s how do we know where the animals are in case we have a horribly contagious disease that’s flying around the country.”
Hansen said he’s also concerned about the costs, but he said the program is vital. For ranchers, the costs will vary depending on the labor involved and the number of cattle. But the electronic ear tag is about $2, Hansen said. That doesn’t include a scanner to read the tag, or any other computer equipment necessary to enter the data.
“I have concerns about the costs of this program and who is going to pay,” he said. “But not with the concept. The concept is straightforward.”
Bill Moore, the president of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, said he’s hoping there will be a financial incentive to participating in the program. If cattle tracked by the system become more valuable and ranchers get paid to track them federally, then it makes more sense.
“We maintain it should be voluntary and market driven, instead of something made mandatory by the federal government,” he said. “The big difference is, with a voluntary system, the market can drive it. You get paid for adding value, for doing the animal ID or tracking ... In a mandatory system, the government isn’t going to come up with money, so the entire cost is borne by the cow-calf producer with no help or compensation by the market.”
Shane Gomes, who has 700 head on his cow-calf operation in Antelope, said he has mixed emotions about the idea.
On the one hand, he’s in favor of tracking animals carefully to improve the safety of the food supply, but he knows the work behind implementing the program, putting a chip in each animal’s ear, plus the paperwork, labor and time that will be associated with the new system.
“I’m not saying it isn’t important for our food supply. But we have a safe food supply. Farmers and ranchers are doing a good job as it is, and I don’t know if we need more regulations,” Gomes said.
“I think my biggest thing is we have a brand tracking program. Let’s use what we have,” he said. “Basically, we all brand our cattle. It’s on record, and you can trace it back.”
Jim Wood, of Aspen Valley Ranch in Post, runs about 400 head of mother cows and that many yearlings. He’s also a veterinarian.
“Part of the reason why we ranch is we want to leave and be left alone,” he said. “You’re talking to people that are fiercely independent, and when you have a government program that potentially mandates you will be tracking, it rubs you the wrong way. It’s very Orwellian if you think about it. So I understand where my fellow ranchers are coming from.”
But, Wood said, he’s in favor of the program and has taken steps to register his ranch with the government.
“I think if there was a disease outbreak, and you’re talking to someone who lived and worked in Great Britain as a vet, and Great Britain had mad cow disease and two outbreaks of foot and mouth disease, and it was devastating to their cattle industry,” he said. “After you see an outbreak for that, you realize the need for the national identification.”