Hot branding on the front burner

Jul 8, 2011

Page three of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) is usually reserved for international affairs, major financial news, or significant political developments. So it was quite a departure from the WSJ’s standard fare when last month the esteemed financial daily’s inside spread featured a large photo of a couple of cowboys stretching out a calf, which was having a hot iron applied to its hip.

The article, titled "In a Beef Over Branding," explained the resistance of the cattle industry to USDA’s long overdue rule for a mandatory animal disease traceback system. Although a formal proposal has not yet been made public, preliminary reports indicate that the system would require special government ear tags as the official federally recognized form of animal ID. Although individual states would be free to maintain their own brand laws, brands would no longer be federally recognized ID for cattle shipped over state lines.

According to the article, ranchers in brand states are concerned that loss of federal recognition of brands could lead down a "slippery slope" in which brands are ultimately phased out under the pressure of animal rights groups.

In addition to explaining the brewing ethical debate, WSJ also gave a frank description of the process of hot branding that the reporter witnessed, explaining that, "A red-hot iron, heated over a propane stove, is held to the calf’s left hip; [t]he iron is held in place for about three seconds, long enough to leave a permanent mark." A close-up photo of a freshly applied brand was also shown.


In western brand states, the core of ranchers’ concern is that by recognizing only USDA ear tags—and not brands—as a federally approved form of animal ID, the proposed rule will weaken the importance and legitimacy of brands as a mark of ownership. But ear tags, ranchers emphasize, cannot replace brands. Without a brand, an ear tag is no deterrent to theft, as it can be easily removed.

Further, in range states where cattle frequently stray into neighboring allotments or are run in common, a brand provides a readily visible mark that can be used to identify ownership at a distance. Though ear tags can also be used for this purpose, ear tags can fall out. Without an ear tag, an unbranded cow becomes essentially ownerless.

A key question, however, is to what degree the government animal ID rule will encroach on using brands as a mark of ownership. States have always had jurisdiction over brands and brand laws, and the new rule is not anticipated to change that. In a clarification of the proposed rule, USDA emphasized that it "supports the use of brands to identify cattle moving interstate. Further, USDA recognizes the value of brands and their prevalence in the western United States. Under USDA’s traceability framework and the upcoming draft proposed rule for traceability for livestock moving interstate, states will be able to continue using brands."

In other words, brands would remain a key component of states’ ability to track cattle movement and verify ownership. However, they would not be recognized federally as an official form of animal ID for disease traceback purposes.

Whether or not the anticipated animal traceback rule will in fact diminish the legitimacy of brands, there is no question that the broad media coverage may push the branding issue to the front lines of animal welfare controversy. Both the pork and egg industries have recently received harsh criticism over the use of farrowing crates and battery cages, respectively, and it is possible that the cattle industry could be in for a similar experience with branding.

Dr. Bernard Rollin, professor of philosophy, animal science, and biomedical science at Colorado State University (CSU), has published extensively on the topic of animal welfare. He is well-known in the cattle industry, having spoken at numerous cattlemen’s conferences and other speaking engagements. Rollin’s take on branding is unique; he urges ranchers to rethink the branding issue, arguing that branding could unnecessarily damage the public’s opinion of the industry.

"I have said this to at least 12 cattlemen’s associations in the last few years," explains Rollin, "…that it’s stupid to persist in branding. Cattle ranching is the cleanest industry. …From an animal welfare point of view, cattle [ranching] is the most friendly, because the animals live their lives essentially naturally. Given that, and given that … concern about animal treatment has seized the popular imagination, I have said to them it is stupid to keep branding."

Clearly, the acceptability of branding as an agricultural practice is open for debate, both scientifically and ethically. For example, Dr. Temple Grandin, renowned animal behaviorist and professor of animal science at CSU, personally endorsed Country Natural Beef’s "Raise-Well" animal welfare standards, which does allow hot-iron branding. But Rollin underlines the fact that for an increasingly critical public, branding may simply not be acceptable, regardless.

"Is [branding] wrong in social terms?" asks Rollin. "Probably. Would society accept inflicting a third-degree burn on an animal when there’re alternatives? No."

Rollin argues that alternatives to branding are available, including retinal scanning, eartags, tail tags, paint, or some combination thereof.

Many ranchers would presumably question whether Rollin’s proposed substitutes would be as effective, practical, or economically viable as a hot-iron brand. Yet the question remains: how much of a public relations issue will branding become, and at what cost to the industry?

At this stage, it is impossible to tell whether hot brands will be the next issue on the Humane Society of the United States’ hit list. But from Rollin’s perspective, a raw cost-benefit analysis says that it’s time ranchers gave branding a rethink, claiming: "The benefit you get from branding is not worth the black eye you get." —Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent

is not alone in its interest in the branding debate. Both the San Angelo Standard Times ("Ranchers fear lack of support for branding") and a widely-syndicated article from the Associated Press ("Ranchers battle to keep their cattle brands") have recently drawn attention to the simmering debate surrounding hot-iron branding. Across the board, the message to the public has been the same: ranchers are afraid that the government is positioning to eliminate hot branding.