Washington dairy cows

Dairy cows graze in a pasture near Sequim, Wash. Dairy operators have not used a new online system to report transactions involving small numbers of cows.

No dairy has electronically reported small, private sales of cattle in the past two years, according to a Washington Department of Agriculture report, leaving a weakness in the state’s ability to trace the source and spread of livestock diseases.

Washington State Dairy Federation policy director Jay Gordon said he’s not sure why the system has gone unused. The federation and agriculture department promoted online reporting as a low-cost and convenient alternative to state inspectors coming to farms.

“We put together a peanut-butter ball and threw it at the wall, and it didn’t stick like we thought it would,” Gordon said. “I frankly was as surprised as anyone.”

The report to legislators comes as the agriculture department plans to expand electronic reporting of cattle sales in Washington. Right now, only in-state sales of 15 or fewer head of unbranded dairy cattle can be reported electronically.

The department spent $15,000 to set up “electronic cattle transaction reporting,” known as ECTR, in 2016.

Until then, sales of a small number dairy cows between private parties didn’t have to be reported. Legislators ended the exemption to plug a gap in the state’s storehouse of information on where a diseased animal may have been.

The department also checks sales to verify ownership. The transactions are taxed to support the Washington Beef Commission.

The department pitched the ECTR system as a “flexible” and an “easy-to-use” way for dairies to meet their new reporting obligations.

Two of the state’s roughly 400 dairies used ECTR to report sales in 2016 and 2017, according to the department’s report. No sales were reported in 2018 or 2019.

Sales of dairy cows sold to meat packers and at auction yards are recorded.

A department spokesman said the agency has encouraged dairies to use ECTR.

The department issued eight citations to producers in 2019 for not reporting cattle sales, but the department did not have a breakdown of how many were issued to dairies and how many went to beef cattlemen.

Gordon said he remains hopeful that dairies will embrace ECTR, especially with rule changes proposed by the agriculture department.

The department plans to allow out-of-state transactions to be reported electronically. It also plans to drop the electronic-reporting fee to $1.30 from $1.60 per head.

Producers also will pay $33 a year for a license to use ECTR, according to the department’s proposal. For electronic reporting, cattle must be identified with a USDA 840 radio-frequency identification tag.

Producers who don’t want to report sales electronically still will be able to call out brand inspectors.

Expanding electronic reporting will be part of a broad revision of the department’s brand inspection program.

The department’s experience so far with online, self-reporting is not promising, said rancher Ted Wishon of the Cattle Producers of Washington.

“It’s like posting a speed limit and never enforcing the speed limit,” he said.

The department tentatively plans to have new rules in place by early October.

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