OLYMPIA — Washington’s cattle industry has yet to agree on a plan to sustain brand inspections, a program that’s heading toward a million-dollar deficit and might be closed down, according to the state Department of Agriculture.
The inspections prevent theft and record where cattle have been if a contagious disease breaks out. Last raised in 2006, inspection fees have fallen behind the cost of sending out inspectors, according to the department.
Moses Lake Sen. Judy Warnick, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate agriculture committee, said Thursday resolving the issue is her top priority. She said she hopes to soon introduce a bill to keep the program going.
In the meantime, she’s floated a plan that would raise fees, adjust them annually for inflation and allow higher increases with the approval of an advisory committee made up of beef ranchers, dairy farmers, packers, feeders and horse breeders.
Under the proposal, the inspection of cattle identified by a brand or electronic tag would increase to $1.16 a head from $1.10. For cattle not identified by a brand or electronic tag, the fee would increase to $5 a head from $1.60.
The higher increase would presumably encourage more producers to individually identify cattle to improve the state’s ability to trace diseases.
The Washington Cattlemen’s Association and Cattle Producers of Washington generally support the proposed fees. Livestock auction yards, however, say the fees will harm the part-time ranchers who don’t brand cattle and are their main customers.
“I understand part of the reason for that is to try and increase the number of branded and ID’d cattle in the state of Washington, but that seems to be a little inequitable,” Kale McGuinness, owner of Stockland Livestock in Davenport, told the Senate agriculture committee on Tuesday.
Many of the livestock owners who bring cattle to his market aren’t represented by the groups that have been trying to work out a new fee schedule, he said.
“Many of these folks are working multiple jobs besides raising cattle,” McGuinness said. “We feel we are a voice for those small producers.”
Brenda Balmelli, who owns Chehalis Livestock Market with her husband, Dave, said the average load brought to their auction yard is 2.5 head.
“We tell them they’re going to be looking at five dollars, they go crazy,” she said.
Warnick said the legislation is still being worked on. “Is $5 too high? It might be,” she said.
A bill to raise fees failed in 2017 after the Cattle Producers of Washington argued the agriculture department’s program was too costly.
The fees tentatively proposed by Warnick are lower, and that makes the agriculture department nervous.
The department has not estimated whether the new fees would make up the deficit.
The department projects expenses will have surpassed fees by about $1 million by the end of the current two-year budget in June. Senior policy adviser Evan Sheffels said the department has been raiding other programs, such as food safety, to fund brand inspections. The department has prepared a bill to stop doing inspections if the program isn’t self-supporting, he said.
“We don’t want to be put in the position where we have to run a program where we don’t have the revenue to do it,” he said.
Packers, feedlots and dairy farmers also pay inspection fees. Organizations that represent those segments of the cattle industry did not embrace Warnick’s proposal Tuesday.
Agri Beef lobbyist Paul Berendt called brand inspections a “legacy” program that primarily benefits ranchers. He said he was concerned about future fee increases without legislative approval.
Other key provisions of Warnick’s proposal would allow brands to be checked by field inspectors who are not employed by the agriculture department. The proposal also would allow more cattle transactions to be reported electronically without a field inspection.
Brand inspectors checked 740,000 head of cattle last year, according to the department. The state has about 5,700 registered brands.