SHERIDAN — Sheridan area ranchers are criticizing a new rule handed down by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, saying it places an undue burden on independent cattle producers.
The animal disease traceability rule, which went into effect last month, creates additional livestock identification measures for producers looking to ship animals out of state. Ostensibly, the measure allows the USDA to trace animals back to their point of origin in the event of an outbreak of any given disease.
But Sheridan County ranchers say the rule is forcing them to pay the price for the sins of the higher-ups in their industry.
“In my view, it’s shifting liability from the big corporate guys down to the small producers,” said Banner rancher Dave Clarendon.
In literature intended to explain the rule, however, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service claims the cattle industry’s inconsistent use of official identification techniques teamed with the regular movement of cattle from one state to another warranted additional regulations.
“Simply, low levels of official identification in the cattle sector require more herds and cattle — often thousands of animals — to be tested than necessary and drastically increase the time required to conduct investigations,” according to a document on the agency’s website.
Under the new rule, each animal moved interstate must be officially identified and accompanied by a certificate of veterinary inspection or other documentation, such as owner-shipper statements or brand certificates.
The regulation specifies approved forms of identification, but would also allow livestock to be moved between the shipping and receiving states with another form of ID if agreed upon by animal health officials in both jurisdictions.
Currently, beef calves under 18 months of age are exempted from the rule unless they are moved interstate for shows, exhibitions, rodeos or recreational events.
The USDA has warned, however, that their traceability requirements will be addressed in a later rule.
Since Wyoming ranchers specialize heavily in calf production, that worries many local producers. They’re also concerned about the agency’s unwillingness to say exactly when that rule might be issued.
Either way, the new rule is problematic enough for many.
“These independent family ranchers are put at an extreme disadvantage (by this rule),” said Powder River Basin Resource Council organizer Bill Bensel. “None of these family guys are making a profit.”
Like Clarendon, Bensel believes Wyoming ranchers are set to pay the price for recent public health events that were out of their control.
Tammy Gorzalka, office manager at Moxey Schreiber Veterinary Hospital, said conversations regarding a potential traceability rule began in earnest several years ago following the nationwide scare surrounding mad cow disease.
And while USDA officials maintain that an enhanced ability to trace an animal’s history will save both time and money when it comes time to investigate similar disease outbreaks, ranchers say the mad cow situation could have been avoided if the beef industry weren’t largely monopolized and anonymous.
Gorzalka said that while the new rule may add an extra level of quality control to the beef production chain, the process of shipping cattle will now take longer to complete. Additionally, ranchers remain unclear as to how much more they stand to pay for individualized veterinary inspections of their animals.
For their part, Clarendon and Bensel alike said ranchers are confused and upset at the prospect of changing the way they do business.
Many feel the regulations, both current and forthcoming, stand to threaten the ability of small-scale cattle producers to make a living.
While they no longer have much of a choice in the matter, they remain frustrated at what they consider a highly unfair decision by the USDA.
“If we had a more decentralized system — which isn’t as profitable for the big guys — we probably wouldn’t have this issue,” Clarendon said.