It's just like getting your ears pierced. —Wade Woolstenhulme
OAKLEY, Summit County — Shortly after sunrise Wednesday, Ken Woolstenhulme drove about 2 ½ hours to collect 19 yearling steers his family had purchased at auction earlier in the week. Then he turned around and hauled them home.
By late afternoon, the cattle had been unloaded into a pen as he and his son, Wade, and grandson, Paden, prepared to inoculate, tag and brand them.
As light rain fell, the men drove the yearling steers into a branding chute. Woolstenhulme, 81, clipped off neat patches from their heavy winter coats where he would apply an electronic iron shaped in the design of the family brand. While he attended to branding, his 14-year-old grandson kept a firm grip on each steer's tail to keep them still while Wade Woolstenhulme maneuvered a syringe and devices to remove the former owners' ear tags. Then he snapped on tags with the mark of the family ranch.
"It's just like getting your ears pierced," he said.
Some of the steers took it better than others. One rambunctious steer bolted for the exit, rearing up on his hind legs, snorting and mooing. After a few minutes of coaxing and a little pushing, the steer settled back into the chute.
"If we have to fight like that for all of them, we'll be here all night," the elder Woolstenhulme cracked.
Branding is a centuries-old practice on ranches throughout the West, primarily to identify livestock by its owner and to prevent the animals' theft.
But in recent years, Western cattle producers have been concerned that this longtime practice would no longer be recognized by federal regulators. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a draft of new regulations that would eliminate the hot-iron brand as a means of official identification for cattle sold or shipped across state lines.
The rulemaking process is ongoing, said Workabeba Yigzaw, public affairs specialist for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. The agency is presently reviewing comments it has received about the proposed rule change.
Ranchers interpreted the regulations, as originally proposed, to mean that for federal purposes, an eartag would be the preferred form of identification. Ranchers in Western states have pushed back, saying new identification requirements would cut into already thin profit margins and that eartags can easily be removed by thieves or dislodged by livestock.
"As we look at it, branding's still the easiest way to identify and protect livestock," said Cody James, animal identification bureau chief for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food. "I don’t think eartags are foolproof."
Ken Woolstenhulme said he uses eartags within his herd to distinguish one animal from another. "We number them so if you rope one and doctor it for pink eye or foul foot, you know if it's been medicated or if it's a different one."
But the Woolstenhulmes are resistant to any further animal identification requirements from the federal regulators who may not understand the particular needs of cattle ranchers whose stock graze on the open range.
"The government doesn't know half of what it ought to," the elder Woolstenhulme said.
"It's people back East, like those PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) people, who come up with those rules."
His son, a middle-school administrator, added, "They think all of their food comes from the grocery store."
Randy Parker, executive director of the Utah Farm Bureau Federation, said the agriculture industry has opposed changes to the regulations because of additional costs and, for some, resistance to further federal involvement in private ranching interests.
"When this started, we went through a very detailed cost-benefit analysis. From an agricultural standpoint, (profit) margins are pretty thin. There was a per-head cost that was fairly substantial," Parker said.
Beyond that, states have long operated effective animal identification programs, he said.
Utah's program, James said, is highly successful at tracking down estray livestock. In 2011, the office conducted 80 investigations into missing livestock. Seventy-two cases were closed when the animals were returned to owners.
"We returned more than 3,200 animals to their rightful owners. That's more than $2 million in lost or stolen animals," James said.
The recent mild winter resulted in a number of cattle wandering far from their home ranges, he said.
"We're finding cattle from Nevada in Tooele County. They traveled a long way. There wasn't a lot to keep them from moving," James said.
Brand inspectors examine animals before they are shipped out of state. They check the animals' ownership and check their general health before they are loaded on trucks. Truck drivers then present inspection documents at states' respective ports of entry.
Brent Tanner, executive vice president of the Utah Cattlemen's Association, said while the federal government's interests in animal identification are preventing the spread of disease and food safety, requiring additional forms of ID is unnecessary.
A brand represents a "lot." If the USDA had concerns about disease, they likely would need to examine an entire lot of animals not just one, he said.
"Walmart doesn't track every single item that's in a box, they track the box," he said.
The issue struck a nerve with ranchers because brands are a source of pride and identity for families. "It's our heritage, really. That brand is like my family name," Tanner said.
A clarifying statement issued by the USDA in July 2011 acknowledged "the value of brands and their prevalence in the Western United States."
The statement said the new regulation "will provide flexibility for states and tribes to use brands for complying with the proposed requirements for interstate movement."
According to Yigzaw, the final version of the regulation is expected to be published late this summer.
James said he is optimistic that the USDA will incorporate the feedback it has received from Western ranchers into the final rules. "We think we got it (the message) across to them," James said, "That brand is the best way to prove ownership."
Ken Woolstenhulme said he, too, hopes that common sense will prevail as the agency develops the final regulations.
While he and his family run a small operation, any rule change that can cut into their margins is worrisome.
"These cattle right here cost about $1,000 a piece. This is risky business. A guy might as well go to Vegas."
What's in a brand, anyway?
There are 10,000 brands registered with the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.
Brand registrations must be renewed every five years.
Some Utah brands have been held in the same families for multiple generations. Some of the newer brands in the state registry include brands shaped like cowboy hats, outlines of human faces, a rendering of a tooth (which was registered by a dentist) and a tipsy margarita glass.
Utah has 12 full-time brand inspectors, 44 part-time inspectors, one full-time theft inspector and a brand recorder.
Source: Utah Department of Agriculture and Food