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Cattle ID Proposal Has Texas Ranchers' Attention

In Texas, the largest cattle state, branding cows with a symbol like the "Rocking R" is practically a cultural necessity. But state and federal regulators are keener on another form of identification — ear tags — that's easier to standardize.

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In Dan Gattis’ Georgetown pasture, cows and their newborn calves have bright yellow ear tags with identification numbers.

“I can take that knife and pull that ear tag out,” said Gattis, a former state representative, gesturing at a knife in his belt. For more permanent identification, he brands each cow with his ranch’s 4G symbol and that cow’s specific number. Ear tags can also be ripped off by brush, he said, pointing out one cow that had lost its “earring.”

Nonetheless, more ear tags may be on the way for ranchers in Texas and across the nation. Proposed rules from the U.S. Department of Agriculture would require ear tags for adult cattle moving across state lines. In Texas, a proposal discussed this week by the Texas Animal Health Commission would require adult cattle — 18 months or older — to have ear tags whenever their ownership changes.

The goal is a standard method of identification for cattle so that health officials can more easily trace the origins of diseases like mad cow and brucellosis, neither of which has been found in Texas for years.

Branding does not lend itself to standardization. In Texas, the largest cattle state, with 13.3 million head as of last January, each county oversees brand records. So in theory — though not in practice — one herd in all 254 Texas counties could register the same brand, like the Rocking R.

Texas ranchers are amenable to changes, within limits. Already, they point out, cattle moving across state lines — as many did last year during the record drought — need certificates of health, and many already have ear tags.

Carmen Fenton, a spokeswoman for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, said the group basically supported the Texas proposal. But “we also need to make sure that any type of trace-back system doesn’t slow down the current speed of commerce,” she said in an email, adding that the state program had to work “hand in hand with the federal program.”

Eldon White, the executive vice president of the same association, supports allowing brands as another official form of identification for moving cattle between certain states. Brands, he said, are the “only permanent method of identification you can see from horseback,” making them crucial theft-prevention tools. Also, when Hurricane Ike struck Southeast Texas in 2008, he said, thousands of cattle wandered through damaged fences, and brands helped ranchers sort them out.

Bill Hyman, the executive director of the Independent Cattlemen’s Association of Texas, worries that the USDA. ear-tagging rule may extend eventually to younger cattle, which are headed to feed yards and then to slaughter, and tagging them before they left the state would be a needless headache.

Ultimately, even if more ear tags are required, Texas ranchers say branding is not going away.

“Most of us are going to brand,” Gattis said, “because that’s the only permanent form of identification.”

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