DENVER (AP) - The future of the hot-iron brand, an icon of Western heritage, is at the center of a nearly decade-long battle over cattle identification and traceability.
"It's the latest hot lightning rod," said John Reid, an Ordway rancher who is past president of the Colorado Independent Cattle Growers Association.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected soon to release a draft of new regulations, which will remove the hot-iron brand from its list of official identification for cattle sold or shipped across state lines.
The new rules will require each animal to be identified by a number stamped on an ear tag.
States would still be able to use brands as official IDs within their boundaries.
Individual agreements between states can be reached to allow brands as official IDs for interstate movement.
Critics fear this is the beginning of the end for America's centuries-old branding tradition.
"The federal government's action sends a signal to the entire industry that the ear tag is a superior means of identification," said Bill Bullard, chief executive of the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund.
They argue that ear tags can fall off or be stolen by thieves, so are not a good form of official ID.
C olorado state veterinarian Keith Rohr, who has participated in creating the new rules, said that brands don't work for tracing animal disease back to its point of origin.
"Processing plants do several thousand (cattle) a day, and they can't stack hides up like pieces of paper," he said. "We understand that for Western states, the heritage of brands is very valuable and means a lot for herd ID. We would never change that."
Colorado's cattle producers are "almost universally" ready for the new program, he said. "It's a minority of producers who oppose it."
State brand commissioner Rick Wahlert said nothing will change for the state's cattle producers.
However, the new system is a critical element of participation in the gl obal beef-export market, he said.
"With international sales, if you cannot prove where your animal has been and where it came from, they won't buy your product, or will buy it at a reduced price," Wahlert said.
Negative reaction to the new rules, he said, "is really about change, and a fear of the government being in your business."
Gerald Schreiber, a third-generation rancher in northeastern Colorado, already uses ear tags for identification within the herd but bristles at the new regulations.
"It sounds good on the surface, but anytime you get the Big Brother approach, I don't trust it," he said. "The brand has worked for 100 years, I don't know why they want to disregard it. In the West, branding is more than just a tradition; it's our identity as ranches."
First proposed in 2002, the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) was rolled out in 2004, spurred by discovery of the first case of mad cow disease in the U.S. in December 2003, which triggered fears about the safety of the nation's food supply. But producers across the country were skeptical about the new program, which would require radio-frequency ear tags that would let cattle be tracked from slaughterhouse to birth.
Their concerns ranged from potential costs to confidentiality of information, including fears that animal-rights advocates would be able to gain information on ranchers through the use of the federal Freedom of Information Act.