Hot iron brands have been used to identify animal ownership since before the days of the Egyptian pharaohs. And, they've been a mainstay of traditional ranching, backed up by state law, throughout the West. So, it's hard to imagine that high-tech animal ID will replace the branding scene on American cattle ranches anytime soon.

Chugwater, WY, rancher Phil Ellis says it straight out when addressing the role brand laws will play in the current animal ID debate.

“We're not opposed to identifying cattle,” explains the Wyoming Stock Growers' Association (WSGA) president. “We've used the brand system in our state for more than 130 years. At this point, we do not endorse a mandatory ID system beyond our brand laws and regulations.”

Most U.S. states have brand registries, and branding remains mandatory for virtually all cattle entering commerce in 14 states. New Mexico's law is the most specific — the law says anyone owning livestock “shall have and adopt a brand for them.” Like most other Western states, New Mexico requires the brand be applied to cattle with a hot iron.

Changes in the wind

Recognizing that changes in the old decrees ruling cattle ID are in the wind, WSGA's leadership was instructed by members to appoint a working group to provide input on proposed state and federal ID programs.

“We're very concerned that an ID program needs to be private, respecting the cattle owners' private property rights and the liability issues that could result,” Ellis says. “It needs to be practical, both at the ranch and in the marketing chains.”

Wyoming's brand system has delivered on this pledge — but is it enough to move forward?

WSGA executive director Jim Magagna says assuming the goal of a national ID system is 48-hour animal traceback, a brand program probably won't work alone. He says brands will likely function as a link between animal ownership, premises registration and a national traceback system.

“Like any other ID system, brands have limitations. One problem is duplicate brands within a state and between states,” Magagna says. “But, we're going to make every effort to make sure our brand system is incorporated into Wyoming's ID program — whatever that might be in the end. We won't forgo our brand system.”

North Dakota's Wade Mosher agrees existing state brand inspection should be recognized and networked into other ID programs where possible. Mosher is executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association, which oversees the state's brand inspection system.

He says that with some modifications (see sidebar on page 40), his state's brand inspection system can provide 48-hour traceback capability — a process that can be accomplished for the cost of inspection — 75¢/head.

“A lot of people don't realize that when we conduct a brand inspection the paper trail that's created is as good as individual ID,” Mosher explains. “Most producers in a brand state don't always know how much information is recorded within the normal course of livestock commerce.”

And, it's all information that could be entered into an electronic database. “Even on the ‘no-brand’ cattle, we have documentation of their movement,” he adds.

North Dakota's brand system, with modifications, will save producers millions of dollars each year while accomplishing the goals of national traceback, Mosher says.

“We're not saying we don't need national traceback capabilities beyond brands, we just want what we've been doing for 100 years recognized,” he adds.

Mosher admits brand systems aren't 100% accurate or reliable, and there is a failure rate. He also recognizes how important traceability is in today's cattle business.

“The incursion of a foreign animal disease in this country could create an economic impact far beyond the cost of any ID system we'll put in place,” he says. “I'm not sure how it's all going to shake out, but we need the assurances that a workable ID system will provide.”

Making a case for brands

Marc Bridges, Helena, executive secretary for the Montana Board of Livestock, is adamant brands have a place in a traceback system. And, he has a case in point of how a brand system can work in an emergency scenario.

In May 2003, he successfully traced forward (and back) the lives of the yearling Angus bulls that had been herd mates of Canada's “index” BSE cow. Using a combination of import permits, and Montana's brand records database, he tracked the movement of the bulls through five other states.

Then using those states' brand records, Bridges was able to verify the time and place where all five bulls were subsequently slaughtered — all in about an eight-hour timeframe.

“It doesn't always work as well as it did in the case of those five Canadian bulls,” Bridges admits, “but, by and large, with brands we can achieve intrastate and interstate traceability in pretty short order, and without a lot of cost to the producers.”

Plus, Bridges says, Western ranchers, cattle traders and their stocker and feedlot customers have gained respect for the active brand programs.

“For the most part, they trust the brand infrastructures and the people who run them,” he says.

Idaho's state veterinarian, Clarence Siroky, sees livestock brands as one segment in the evolution of a national traceback system. While he agrees brands have a place in the traceback picture, he's not sure brands can cut the mustard alone.

“The goal of 48-hour traceback can't be accomplished routinely with a brand system,” Siroky says. “I'm not saying brands will be relegated to something you just hang by the fireplace but, over the long haul, we need to have other things in place that will do far more than what's intended with a brand.”

Beyond the regulations

Siroky is also adamant that as ID and traceback systems evolve, “business” will have to drive them.

“In the end, I think the business aspects of animal traceback and ID will become more important than the regulatory requirements we're being exposed to today,” he says. “What's going to drive this is a ‘What's in it for me?’ approach.”

Siroky believes it will take up to 10 years for all the pieces of the U.S. ID/traceback puzzle to fall into place.

“The result will be a system that accomplishes both the business and regulatory goals needed in today's livestock marketing climate — much as brand systems have done for more than a century,” Siroky says.

Even in states like Wyoming where the grip on the branding iron is alive and well, cattle producers are reaching for new ideas. Like Siroky, WSGA leadership recognizes there must be a link between the business goals and traceback goals of an ID system.

In April, WSGA began sponsoring a herd management program designed to assist producers in collecting and warehousing data electronically via an online database.

“The WSGA leadership looked carefully at several electronic programs available over the past year,” Magagna says. “It was the officers' unanimous decision that we'd support software and services that offered a producer-friendly system with the flexibility to meet the future needs of Wyoming's cattle industry.”

Magagna says the system isn't a step toward national animal ID, “but, it does offer the technology to meet the demands of such a system, if adopted.”

Tweaking the system

What legal modifications must be made to fully implement a brand inspection system that will allow for 48-hour traceback capability? The North Dakota Stockmen's Association has proposed these changes to its state brand law in order to do just that. Among them are:

  • A premises ID number must be on the brand inspection certificate.

  • Brand inspectors must be allowed to have access to market and dealer information (invoices) to assist in the traceback process.

  • At some point, mandatory brand inspection may be required for private treaty sales within North Dakota rather than transferring ownership via a bill of sale.

ID registration by state

Below is a list of state departments of agriculture and other agencies that may be handling premises registration and individual animal ID numbers. Contact your respective state for more information on ID registration.