Brand inspection pays: Ranchers seek better communication and enforcement | TSLN.com

Brand inspection pays: Ranchers seek better communication and enforcement

Some South Dakota livestock producers are concerned that the South Dakota Brand Board is not fully enforcing the brand law or that perhaps the board has not been made aware of worrisome brand law violations.

The governor-appointed Brand Board is charged with ensuring brand laws are followed including brand inspection of all cattle, horses and mules in Western South Dakota that change ownership, leave the brand area or are slaughtered.

Brand inspection quality

Former brand inspector Marlin Brink said he recently brought a carcass to a local meatpacking plant that he had slaughtered at home. He brought the hide along to be looked at but was told that inspection was not needed any longer. "I thought that they were required by law to inspect the hides…when I was an inspector that was a big deal," said the Enning, S.D., rancher.

Rancher and former brand inspector from Box Elder, Rapid City, S.D., Matt Kammerer reports that the S.D. Brand Board showed little interest in dealing with problems he reported to them two years ago.

"I sent them a letter explaining what a brand inspector had done and it just fell on deaf ears," Kammerer said. He first shared his frustration in a public meeting, he explained, and was told by a Brand Board member that he should "file a complaint," which he did, but he is not aware of any resolution to the problem. Kammerer witnessed first-hand an inspector that cleared cattle that had not been rebranded, and that did not arrive with paperwork. "They could have easily been stolen cattle, and the inspector would have never caught it," he said. A cattle owner needs to present paperwork verifying the livestock purchase if he or she has not rebranded the cattle, Kammerer explained.

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Another concern he shared with the S.D. Brand Board over two years ago, which has never been addressed, he said is the fact that two local meat markets are not utilizing brand inspection on "farm kills," leaving the door open for stolen cattle to be hauled to the plant and slaughtered.

Those issues are a symptom of a bigger problem, Kammerer believes, "It is the Brand Board's job to address concerns and deal with situations that are not being handled correctly, not ignoring them," he said. "The brand inspection program is not serving a purpose anymore. With what they are doing to us we just as well throw out the brand inspection program because we aren't getting what we are being charged for," he said.

Kammerer said he believes the program, which is only enforced on the West side of the river fits the definition of "taxation without representation," because producers in the brand inspection area "are not getting a benefit" since the law in his opinion is not being enforced in some locales within the inspection area.

Many brand inspectors are doing an excellent job, particularly those with substantial experience but unfortunately some of the new hires receive poor or little training and oversight of the inspection program is lacking, Kammerer believes.

Brand inspection cost

The South Dakota Brand Board settled on a ten-cent increase of the brand inspection fee, from $.80 to $.90 in 2012, after originally lobbying for a fee of $1. This past year they tried again to gain support for a $1 inspection fee and were successful, so in July the fee was upped to a full dollar.

In a year-old KDLT online news report, board member Curt Mortenson said a drop in the state's cattle herd due to drought would mean fewer brand inspections. That's why he and other members of the board decided to increase the inspection fee from 90 cents to $1 a head.

Mortenson publicly predicted inspections of between 1.2 to 1.55 million head for fiscal year 2013 that ended June 30.

At the $.90 rate, if inspections were to fall at the six-year average of 1.5 million head, income would have covered budgeted brand inspection expenses, leaving a $35,000 cushion.

According to their website, the program actually inspected over 1.8 million head during FY 2013 which means they took in around 1.6 million dollars, a profit margin of about 23 percent. If they had been successful in their endeavor to raise the fee to $1 in 2012, their income would have been around the 1.8 million dollar mark, giving them about a half million dollars excess in just one year, or about a 39 percent profit margin.

Bill Hutchinson who ranches around White River, S.D., doesn't believe that kind of extra funding is prudent for a government-run program. However he is more concerned about the quality of the service and he wouldn't have a problem with a fee increase if it meant an improvement in training for new inspectors and better oversight of the program by the board.

"All I want at this point is a good program," Hutchinson said. He is worried that while the cost of inspection is going up, the service is becoming ineffective.

"These are producer's dollars they are taking in and spending. It is important that they spend it efficiently." Hutchinson believes this means pursuing a fee increase only when truly warranted.

Hutchinson, who said that the S.D. Stockgrowers are not actively seeking to manage the program again, also points out that during final negotiations with the brand board, several years ago, the S.D. Stockgrowers proposed a contract in which the organization would operate with six percent profit and the Brand Board denied the proposal, insisting that a two percent profit margin was sufficient.

Hutchinson, who worked as a brand inspector for about 20 years before the state took over the program recalls stringent training programs and a chief inspector who expected as close to perfection as possible from the inspectors. "I didn't think I was that bad of an inspector but I got my butt chewed a few times," he recalls, and he learned from each experience, he recalls.

When he worked as an inspector, training sessions were held around the state every year, Hutchinson said, and incorrect paperwork discussed and individual inspectors were given strict instructions on how to improve performance.

"I think there are some outstanding, experienced brand inspectors at auction barns across the state. Those full time inspectors and a lot of part time guys do a great job of inspecting and also training the inspectors working under them but as far as I can see some of the new inspectors haven't been trained as well and don't have the knowledge or tools to do their job correctly." Hutchinson also pointed out that auction barn operators often take the brunt of poor inspection practices even though they have no control over the program or the inspectors.

A May 2013 Aberdeen American news story said that board member Bart Blum of Reliance pledged to seek a reduction in the fee if money starts piling up.

Blum said last month that the board has not seriously discussed a fee decrease.

"It's hard to really make a judgment until we see what's going to happen down the road," he said.

Blum believes the inspectors are trained but he is not familiar with the details. Blum also added, "we do not know what effect the blizzard losses will have on the program," and clarified that his comments are his own personal opinions.

Inspector perspectives: training is minimal

A man who inspected for several years and recently moved on from the state-run program said brand inspection is a tough and often thankless job. In spite of this, as a state employee, he insisted that every animal be thoroughly checked before he wrote paperwork. The former inspector worries that cattle are not all being looked at as well as they should be. He knew of cases of inspectors writing inspections "in the country" without looking at cattle. Country inspections are generally done on cattle moving out of the inspection area or being sold private treaty. "The chief knew there were guys doing that. As far as I knew nobody lost their books over it and I don't think it stopped them."

The former inspector points out that the livestock investigators, both housed in Pierre (outside of the brand inspection area) are not former brand inspectors and therefore may not have a good understanding of the inner workings of the inspection program. He believes this is a real weakness. He reported cattle moving out of the inspection area without inspections to the brand board numerous times and "nothing was done about it."

The trainings he took part in were a "waste of time," the man said.

Part time brand inspector William Davey from Rapid City, S.D., said he was hired three years ago and said, "it's not much of a training." He went on to explain that "they showed me how to fill out the papers and turned me loose," to begin inspecting. At the occasional "group" training, legal updates such as the new fees are discussed, along with other things, he said.

Gary Shoun who served as Colorado's Commissioner of the state Board of Stock Inspection oversaw that state's brand inspection department for 20 years. He said thorough training is crucial to a good program. "We test all our kids to be sure they can see a brand. Anybody can read a horse brand but reading brands on cattle takes some practice. The training thing is imperative."

Communication is key

Former South Dakota brand board member Dick Meyer who spent over 25 years enforcing the law as an employee of the S.D. Department of Criminal Investigation before serving on the board said that brand inspection is "cheap security" and believes it is necessary for livestock theft prevention.

Meyer believes the fee is reasonable, "for what you get out of it because you get a lot of cheap security. Without brand inspection we'd have a real mess," he said.

However, any high profile program of that magnitude will incur complaints and questions he said. "If you are getting complaints about no inspections or cattle moving out of the inspection area, the board ought to bring the chief inspector in and say 'hey, we've got a problem, let's figure this out.' The first thing you need to do is identify the problem."

Identification and resolution of problems is up to the chief inspector and ultimately the board, Meyer said. "If that doesn't work then you have an independent third party check it out and do an investigation."

"If they are not getting proper investigations, that is a thief's paradise," Meyer said and if an investigation of the brand board is requested, the Department of Criminal Investigation might have to investigate the agency itself. "DCI would have to take off their shoes and put on some boots and check it out," he said.

Hutchinson encouraged producers who know of situations where the brand law is violated or inspection is lacking, to submit a written report to the S.D. Brand Board and maintain a copy for their own records. This will provide the Brand Board with the knowledge, tools and contact information to improve the program for the benefit of the entire industry, Hutchinson said. "The purpose of brand inspection is to prevent theft and identify strays across the brand inspection area. That is what we are paying for." The board members need to know about problems so they and their chief inspector can take quick action and be sure the state-mandated program is carrying out its intended purpose, Hutchinson said.

"If anybody has any concerns they are more than welcome to call in and talk to me and we'll handle each case. I just want people to feel like they can call and voice their concerns or ask questions," said brand board Executive Director Debbie Trapp who took the position less than a year ago.

She said at their last meeting the board didn't discuss lowering the fee because it was too early to know what affect the blizzard losses will have on inspection numbers. She also said she has never heard a complaint about the inspector training program.

Current members of the S.D. Brand Board are: Wanda Blair, Curt Mortensen, Bart Blum, Scott Vance and Lyla Hutchison. F