Brand inspections

Cows graze in southeast Washington. The Washington Department of Agriculture plans to allow cattle sales to be reported electronically, a form of self-reporting that hasn't caught on with the dairy industry.

OLYMPIA — New rules for selling cattle in Washington are scheduled to take effect in October, hiking fees and nudging producers into using USDA-approved radio-frequency identification tags.

Ranchers who use the "840" tags — a three-number international code for the U.S. — will be able to report sales online to the state Department of Agriculture.

The department hopes the convenience will motivate more cattlemen to use this particular type of tag. The 840 tags allow animal-health officials to track a cow from birth to slaughter.

The USDA intends to make 840 tags mandatory by 2023. The federal agency says tracking every cow will limit crippling trade sanctions if a livestock disease breaks out.

The 840 tags and online reporting will be voluntary, for now. Ranchers can still opt to call brand inspectors to come out and verify ownership.

Washington Cattlemen's Association Executive Vice President Danny DeFranco said he doubts anyone knows now how many ranchers will report transactions electronically.

"I think only time will tell. My personal feeling is it will be used more and more as time goes on," he said. "The good thing about this is everybody has a choice of what they want to do." 

The rules flesh out legislation passed this year to fund and revise the department of agriculture's brand inspection program.

The department signs off on cattle sales to prevent rustling. Inspection records allow animal-health officials to identify cattle exposed to a contagious disease.

The inspections' dual purpose and the different needs of segments of the cattle industry made for a long and complicated debate.

The department said the program was in the red and threatened to end inspections if fees weren't raised. Cattle groups sought reforms to make the program less costly to support.

In the end, legislators hiked fees, promoted 840 tags and authorized self-employed brand inspectors to supplement state employees.

The department is in the final stages of writing the regulations. They're scheduled to go into effect Oct. 7.

The new fees, set in the bill, encourage producers to identify cattle. The fee for inspecting unbranded cattle will be $4 a head, up from $1.60. The fee for inspecting branded cattle was raised to $1.21 from $1.10.

Producers who report sales electronically will pay $1.30 per head, plus an annual $33 fee. The department projects the fees will decline as more livestock owners adopt 840 tags and online reporting.

At a public hearing Aug. 29, Washington State Dairy Federation policy director Jay Gordon said the department's rules stray from the law passed by lawmakers.

The bill states that livestock markets must pay independent inspectors the same call-out fee as state employees. The department has proposed an outright ban on markets using independent inspectors.

Gordon said barring livestock markets from using independent inspectors could affect dairy farmers who bring cows to markets.

The Livestock Marketing Association also said the rule would be unfair.

"While we do not plan to use them full time, the use of field livestock inspectors would be invaluable during emergencies or special circumstances," the association's region executive officer, Forrest Mangan, wrote in a letter to the department.

The department's livestock brand program manager, Robbie Parke, defended not allowing markets to hire self-employed "field" inspectors.

"The key term in 'field inspector' is 'field,' " he said. "And a market is not a field inspection."

Markets sometimes need several inspectors at once, and they will have to work as a team, not independent contractors, Parke said. "There are a lot of moving parts at a sale that the state inspectors are able to handle," he said.

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