My Friends the Bledsoe’s

My two oldest grandkids and I drove two hours out east in Colorado a week ago. We were attending a BBQ on the Bledsoe ranch. The grandkids provided after supper music with their harmonica and fiddle. We all had a great time. Today I see the Bledsoe’s are in the news and why not they are one of the great ranches of the west. The artcle from Ag Journal follows.

By Candace KrebsAg JournalPosted Jul 22, 2011 @ 10:00AM Hugo, Colo. —When Wall Street Journal reporter Stephanie Simon was looking for a ranch branding to cover for a news article, her inquiries eventually led her to the plains of eastern Colorado, site of the Bledsoe Ranch. TheBledsoe family was eager to accommodate her in order to express their concern about the potential loss of an important Western tradition and animal identification method. Branding is so embedded in the history and culture of the ranch that a handmade metal sign welcoming visitors to “Bledsoe Country” depicts a calf being marked with a hot iron.

“It’s simple, and it works,” Wil Bledsoe said. “But I don’t think the government likes simple anymore.”

The Wall Street Journal is among many media outlets covering a controversy that has been heating up in anticipation of the publication of draft rules for a disease traceability framework that will replace the notoriously unpopular National Animal ID Program.

Ranchers, particularly in official brand states like Colorado and Texas, want hot-iron brands to be used as an official form of identification for cattle being shipped across state lines. Early proposals for the new framework would allow states to continue using brands but would require additional identification to meet interstate shipping requirements.

“The branding issue is important to me,” Bledsoe said. “The government is trying to come in and say it’s not going to be recognized and yet it’s worked for 200-plus years.”

Demoting the brand isn’t the only objection ranchers have to the disease traceability proposal, which is expected to be formally announced any day now, but it is a significant one, according to John Reid, a rancher from Ordway, Colo.

He suggests it might have been a big enough roadblock to slow up the publication of the rules, which are already several months behind schedule.

“It’s awful quiet,” Reid said. “When they floated out the idea that brands would not be an official form of ID, I think they caught a lot of backlash about that.”

“It’s certainly a deal they need to study and think about,” he continued. “Everybody understands the limits of the brand, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be a piece of it. That’s a surefire way to alienate producers.”

Hot iron brands are a key way of identifying Canadian and Mexican cattle, and some ranchers fear that if the brand programs are imperiled, a logical consequence would be to lose track of which cattle were imported, Reid added. The United States has had country of origin labeling on beef sold at retail since early 2009.

The Department of Agriculture is attempting to shift the emphasis to ear tagging, but as Bledsoe noted, a brand is like a tattoo, while a tag is more like an earring. “It’s more permanent,” he said of the brand.

The status of brands is only one of several items that have raised red flags among cattlemen. Another is USDA’s intent to include the nation’s 2 million-plus feeder cattle in the program, despite protests that such a move would add costs and slow the speed of commerce. Most groups have agreed a traceability plan should start with the breeding cattle herd and evolve slowly.

“Producers want to see something work before they are willing to add onto it,” Reid said.

Judith McCreary, a small Texas rancher, executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance and a member of President Obama’s Rural Advisory Council, said she was told in a conference call with the Ag Department that the rule has been stalled by continued cost-related questions from the Office of Management and Budget.

Despite the delay, organizations with concerns about the plan have been proactive in airing their grievances even before the proposed framework is formally announced.
The Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, along with R-CALF, Food and Water Watch, the Western Organization of Resource Council and the Cornucopia Institute issued a press release in mid-June outlining their protests. They wanted to make it clear that the new proposal doesn’t have universal support, according to McCreary.

“The side that’s very pro-traceability has been putting out a lot of press,” she said.

McCreary said in the news release that the plan would give meatpackers a marketing advantage while putting a disproportionate financial burden on small producers.

“I do genuinely believe this proposal is less bad than the NAIS proposal was,” she said recently by phone from Boulder, where she was attending a meeting. “A lot of problems aren’t present in this new proposal. Having said that, it still suffers from some of the same fundamental flaws.”

She said for one thing authors of the new plan have never provided adequate analysis to back it up. “It’s not clear where the breakdowns in the current system are,” she said, adding, “We’re using horrible old paper systems, and tagging more animals doesn’t do anything to address that. There’s an issue of lack of equipment and money that the agencies have: let’s try to address that first and then see if it solves the problem.”

Including feeder cattle would just exacerbate the existing drawbacks, due to the sheer numbers involved. “They are going to swamp themselves with data,” she said. “Too much data can be as bad as too little.”

She and Reid both say the proposal raises too many unanswered questions.

There has been no indication from Washington when the traceability framework will finally be published, although the agency had hoped to start implementing it next year. A 60-day comment period will follow, and USDA is expected to include a white paper detailing the methodology behind it.
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