Washington cattle industry in searing debate over brand program

A cow raises its head above the herd in southeast Washington. The state Department of Agriculture is eying eliminating brand inspections unless cattlemen and state lawmakers can agree on fees to support the program.

Brand inspections, a way to catch rustlers, will end next year in Washington unless the cattle industry fully funds the inspections, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

The department says it loses $38,000 a month checking brands on cattle that are being sold. If the Legislature doesn’t bring fees in line with expenses, inspections will cease in July, according to a budget plan submitted Monday.

“We do not take this lightly at all. We understand the seriousness of it,” department spokesman Hector Castro said Wednesday. “It would be irresponsible for the department to not prepare for this because the department can’t continue to operate a program that loses money every month.”

The deficit has been building for several years as segments of Washington’s livestock industry have debated the scope, value and expense of brand inspections. State lawmakers set the fees, which were last raised in 2006. The department says the fees have not kept up with rising government costs.

Cattlemen say brands are important to prove ownership and keep the state from becoming a haven for stolen cattle. The department has sustained brand inspections by borrowing from other fee-supported programs such as food safety and plant health. The department will ask lawmakers for a one-time bailout of $543,405 in general taxes to repay those debts.

The department proposed fee increases in 2017, saying it cost $42 an hour to put a brand inspector in the field, while producers paid $17 an hour. The Washington Cattlemen’s Association and Washington Cattle Feeders Association endorsed raising fees to $27.50 an hour. The Cattle Producers of Washington was opposed and argued that more sales could be reported electronically without calling for a state inspector. Faced with a divided industry, lawmakers left the fees alone.

Castro said the department won’t propose fee increases this time. Instead, the department will leave it to the industry and lawmakers to make a deal. “We offered something, and it wasn’t passed,” he said.

Cattle Feeders director Jack Field said the cattle industry is a long way from an agreement. “Now we’re standing at the precipice — fund it or lose it,” he said. “It’s going to be a long conversation.”

Cattle Producers President Scott Nielsen restated the organization’s concerns Wednesday that the department’s costs are too high and that cattlemen are being asked to pick up the bill. “The deficit is being created by the department,” he said.

The department says if it cut the program any more it wouldn’t be able to do its job.

The Washington Cattlemen’s Association has yet to firm up a position on funding the program, Executive Vice President Sarah Ryan said. “It’s fair to say cattlemen understand there needs to be some increase,” she said.

Besides deterring rustlers, brand inspections help the state keep track of cattle in case of a disease outbreak. The department hopes to someday track every cow individually with an electronic tag.

Even if that comes to pass, brands will be a useful and time-honored way to sort cattle and prove ownership, Field said.

“It’s a quick, efficient and economically proven tool for identifying livestock,” he said. “You also have to understand that brands are of generational and cultural importance.”

Only an estimated 15 to 20 percent of dairy farmers brand cattle, but other dairy farmers pay inspection fees when they sell cattle, Washington State Dairy Federation policy director Jay Gordon said.

Dairy farmers won’t support big fee increases to support a program they don’t benefit from, he said. “That’s a pretty simple ‘no.’ This is a great time to re-evaluate the status quo,” he said.

Gordon said it would be worth looking at having a privately run brand-inspection program, rather than financing a government program.

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