OLYMPIA — Most Washington dairy farmers don’t brand cows and aren’t in the mood to pay more to support a brand program, an industry representative told lawmakers Tuesday, complicating a last-ditch push to save the program aimed at marketing cattle and deterring rustlers.
Other cattle groups endorsed a plan to raise fees to fund inspections by the state Department of Agriculture of cattle changing owners. Washington State Dairy Federation policy director Jay Gordon said recent meetings with members revealed strong opposition.
“We got our ears bent pretty hard,” he said. The steepest hike would be for inspecting unbranded cows, and the proposal comes as dairies struggle with a prolonged slump in milk prices.
“The timing is poor. Our guys are really grumpy right now,” he said.
The agriculture department inspects cattle to certify ownership. Last raised in 2006, the fees do not cover the cost of putting inspectors in the field, and the mismatch between costs and revenue over the past two years is approaching $1 million, according to the department.
For the past two years, lawmakers have been reluctant to raise fees without full industry support. With a month left in the legislative session, lawmakers are also moving a bill to simply abolish brand inspections. Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, said that has focused attention on reaching an agreement.
“They’re finally getting the picture with that bill out there,” she said. “We have to have this (program). It’s absolutely necessary.”
To save the program, Senate 5959, introduced by Warnick, would raise fees for inspecting branded cattle to $1.21 from $1.10 per head. The fee for inspecting unbranded cattle would increase to $4 from $1.60. Presumably, the difference would motivate more producers to brand cattle.
Several ranchers told lawmakers that brands are vital to assure buyers and bankers that Washington cattle sales are legitimate. They asked legislators to pass the bill.
SB 5959 would also raise fees paid by feedlots and meat packers by 10%.
To cut program costs, cattle sales could be reported electronically, an option now limited to sales of unbranded dairy cows. Department-trained private inspectors could be hired instead of calling out a state employee.
The bill has already passed the Senate. At the House hearing, the Washington Cattlemen’s Association, Cattle Producers of Washington, Washington Cattle Feeders Association and Agri Beef endorsed the measure, as did the agriculture department.
Livestock Marketing Association region executive officer Forrest Mangan said in an interview a 150% hike for inspecting unbranded cattle was “a little over the top,” but the auction yards are neutral on the bill. “We serve people on both sides,” he said.
About 200 dairies, or roughly 60%, do not brand, Gordon said. A $4 inspection fee would be particularly hard to accept for a dairy farmer selling a bull calf for $5, he said.
Gordon said he understands branding cattle on rangelands. “Our guys keep their animals in a barn or a corral,” he said. “Our members are tired of being in the system.”
After the hearing, Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, said he and other legislators will continue to work on the bill. He said he hoped lawmakers won’t have to pass a bill without full industry support. He also said he wouldn’t accept ending brand inspections. “Not going to happen, if I can help it,” he said.