What do cattle branding, food safety, electronic ear-tags and grass-fed beef have to do with one another?


Some think the answer is “not a heck of a whole lot,” but others are pushing for the connections.

My husband Dave and I were making our way through a recent Sunday edition of St. Paul Pioneer Press when we came across a story reprinted from the San Jose Mercury News. It started out benignly enough. It was about the passing of a romantic icon of the American West, cattle branding. It went on to say that this out-dated tradition would be replaced by the much more reliable electronic ear tag as a means of identifying which cow belongs to whom. Why the switch? Because of a federal rule now being chewed over by the US Department of Agriculture.

No one would expect a change of this cultural significance to go unchallenged. The article included quotes from a number of western ranchers who believe that the proposed system has large flaws. Many growers already use plastic ear tags to identify our cattle and know, from experience, that they can pop off as cattle move through brush. They can also be cut off should cattle be stolen. A brand, on the other hand, can be seen from a distance and does not rub off. (FYI: I do not brand.)

The Mercury News article, and a very similar story in the New York Times, went on to argue that the electronic ear tags are needed for global trade and would help trace livestock should there be an outbreak of disease on the hoof. 

I just didn’t get it.

The multiple millions of pounds of meat that have been recalled in the last several years were due to, or were suspected of, contamination in processing.

When cattle are processed, they don’t get to keep their ears. How are electronic tags going to help? And who was asking for these expensive ear-bobs anyway? As a small (very small) beef grower, these tags could prove both an expense and administrative hassle. It would likely require an whole new layer of paper work.

But hey, I’m brand new to all this. That’s why I called on an expert to provide some context and walk me through the weeds.

I hope you enjoy this Deep Roots Radio conversation with Judith McGeary, executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, headquartered in Texas. FRFA looks to protect the interests of small, non-corporate growers all across America.

A lawyer, and producer of grass-fed sheep, she explains why this rule is being pushed through now and

  • how it’s likely to affect small-scale farmers,
  • how it may reduce supply of locally-grown, grass-fed beef, lamb and chickens, and
  • what farmers and food lovers can do to make sure they can continue to grow and choose the foods we want

What do you think?

[Audio below]