Chain of Thought

Cattle Producers Complain USDA Is Playing It By Ear

There's a burning issue (sorry) in the world of the beef production supply chain: whether cattle ranchers should continue to identify cattle using hot brands, or to instead opt for ear tags. The idea of ear tagging cattle is not a new one—my own grandfather, for instance, used them on his dairy farm decades ago—but large cattle ranches typically opt for the hot brands as a quick and highly visual way to differentiate between herds, especially out on the open ranges where cattle occasionally get mixed up with other herds.

However, according a recent Wall Street Journal article, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is now proposing that every cow needs to have an ear tag, in some cases including radio frequency identification, to help track the entire cattle lifecycle, “from farm to fork” as the saying goes. Where this becomes an issue is the fear among some beef producers that branding will no longer be an option.

In an open letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, industry trade group R-CALF writes:

"In one fell swoop, the Obama Administration is poised to clinch the prize that eluded the Bush Administration for four years – that prize is the denigration of the United States cattle industry's iconic, centuries-old, hot-iron brand. It is apparent the prize's sponsor, the World Trade Organization, has successfully persuaded the Obama Administration to denigrate America's hot-iron brand to not only make room for the internationally numbered ear tag, but also to elevate that tag to an exclusive category. So exclusive is the category that it bumped out America's centuries-old brand to get there."

The letter, in no uncertain terms, suggests that Vilsack misled them (well, R-CALF says he “outright lied” to them) when he earlier promised that hot brands would remain on the list of official identification devices. As R-CALF sees it, eliminating the hot brand option represents a capitulation “to a global agenda under the auspices of the World Trade Organization, Codex Alimentarius, and the World Organization for Animal Health. Europe does not rely on brands so the United States must not either?”

A recent survey conducted by our sister Penton publication, Beef magazine, asked its readers what it thought about the USDA's idea of dropping the hot brand as an official ID method. By a 2-to-1 margin, they thought it was a bad idea.

So the issue really isn't whether ear-tagging is a better way to track cattle (though some say it definitely is better), but whether it makes sense to eliminate the branding option from consideration. And quite a few cattle ranchers have a major concern that the USDA is feeding them a load of, well, cow pies on the matter.

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