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Hot topic: Cap on brand inspector work week generates concerns

Spike Jordan
for Tri-State Livestock News

GRAND ISLAND, Neb. – Senator Steve Halloran, chairman of the legislature’s agriculture committee, has assembled a task force of cattle industry stakeholders to help the committee decide the future of Nebraska’s brand laws and the agency that enforces it.

The first round of work group meetings is set to kick off Monday, Sept. 21, at Fonner Park in Grand Island, and is in response to LR 387, an interim study resolution Halloran introduced after hearings for two brand bills this past spring ended at an impasse.

LB 1165, introduced by Sen. John Stinner of Gering, would have ended mandatory brand inspection, eliminated the Nebraska Brand Committee, and transferred remaining duties for brand recording to the Department of Agriculture. LB 1200, introduced for the Nebraska Brand Committee by Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, would have among other changes significantly changed the fee structure supporting the Brand Committee and expanded the role of the Brand Committee to incorporate EID and other forms of animal ID to provide alternatives means of brand inspection compliance as well as to offer additional services to the industry.

“There has been increasing questions about the role and value of mandatory brand inspection and concerns expressed that the fees charged to some segments of the industry are unfair,” Halloran said in a press release. “The two bill’s heard before the Agriculture Committee this past session proposed radically different solutions and there was little consensus for moving forward with either bill although there does appear to be widespread agreement that the brand law needs to be updated.”

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the meeting is not open to the public but media has been invited to attend. Halloran said he anticipates that whatever recommendations the working group might arrive at will be presented to the full ag committee in a public hearing later in the interim. Future meetings will be held at other locations across the state.

WHO’S WHO

A list of the working group members obtained by Tri-State Livestock News shows an overlap of some individuals who had testified at the LB 1165 and LB 1200 hearings in the legislature’s Warner Chamber this past spring, as well as some new faces.

Nebraska Farm Bureau

Nebraska Farm Bureau has one rep and was a late addition to the work group. Farm bureau has a fairly rigid brand inspection policy adopted by members in 2016.

“We support the work of the Brand Committee and believe the Committee should have the fee authority necessary to adequately fund its programs,” the Farm Bureau policy manual states. “Nebraska’s brand inspection law should be broadened to encompass the entire state. We recognize the need for a registered feedlot inspection program and believe an equitable fee structure should be developed to continue the program. We do not support an exemption from fees for feedlots participating in the program.”

That policy is set to expire if not renewed or modified by Farm Bureau members at its annual meeting in December.

- Jeff Metz is the president of the Morrill County Farm Bureau, and has previously served on the Nebraska Brand Committee Board of Directors. He also serves as a Morrill County Commissioner, and has been a staunch advocate for the brand and the cow/calf producer.

Nebraska Cattlemen (NC)

Nebraska Cattlemen has two reps on the working group.

NC has a diverse and segmented membership, with cow/calf operations in the west and central part of the state, and larger feedlots to the east. It’s a difficult horse for them to straddle, but the NC policy has generally been in support of the Brand Committee and in defense of the brand law, however they have opposed past legislation which would have expanded the inspection area to the whole state.

- Melody Benjamin, of Lakeside, is Vice President of Member Services and an NC lobbyist. Benjamin is a familiar face at many of the Brand Committee meetings, and has testified on Brand Committee issues in the legislature. At the most recent Brand Committee meeting in Alliance, Benjamin thanked the brand committee for managing producer’s money wisely.

- Ken Herz is a feeder from Lawrence and current NC president. In an interview with Rural Radio Network this past spring, Herz expressed NC’s support for lowering the fee structure for Registered Feed Lots, which was one of the more controversial aspects of LB 1200.

Independent Cattlemen of Nebraska (ICON)

Independent Cattlemen of Nebraska has been supportive of the brand committee, however it voiced opposition against LB 1200 last spring because changes to the RFL fee structure and the inclusion of EID.

- Don Cain, DVM, of Broken Bow, testified against LB 1200 last spring, and spoke specifically against the EID provisions of the bill saying that it “confirms the peter principle in ownership,” and that in his experience, elevating EID beyond its element as a form of legal identification would be a bad decision.

- Former ICON president David Wright of Neligh is a fourth generation cow/calf rancher and former newspaper publisher. He sits on the board for the Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM) with fellow ICON member and former state senator Al Davis of Hyannis. He has served on both the Nebraska and national beef check-off boards.

Nebraska Beef Producers Committee

The Nebraska Beef Producers Committee is an organization which has sought to end inspection fees. In 2017, Beef Producers sued the Nebraska Brand Committee and its former Director Bill Bunce in an unsuccessful effort to overturn the Nebraska Brand law. Some members of the Beef Producers Committee include Adams Land and Cattle Company of Broken Bow, and Gottsch Cattle Company, which operate feedyards both inside and outside Nebraska’s inspection area. According to documents filed with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission, Beef Producers spent $88,000 to lobby on brand committee issues.

- John Sennet, is an attorney from Broken Bow who represents the Beef Producers Committee and testified at the brand bill hearings last Spring. He testified in favor of LB 1165, which is in line with the Beef Producers’ goals of abolishing the Brand Committee, and against LB 1200. He said that the brand committee is not a private group, but a mandatory group that does not provide a certain segment of registered feedlots any benefit.

- Pete Lapaseotes is an RFL operator from Bridgeport whose affiliation to the Beef Producers was not disclosed during his testimony last spring. He argued that since inspections are not statewide, brand laws in Nebraska will never be fully equal. He argued that LB 1200 doesn’t meet the needs of producers and that it doesn’t allow Nebraska to be on a competitive footing with other states. He is on the board of Consolidated Beef Producers, a cattle marketing cooperative based in Canyon, Texas.

Dairy Industry

- David Wolfe of Wolfden Dairy south of Kearney sits on the board of directors for the Nebraska State Dairy Association. Wolfe told TSLN that there are not many dairies left in the brand inspection area, but some dairies take heifer calves down south in Texas and Kansas for backgrounding. While the dairy retains ownership, the calves still need a brand inspection before leaving the brand area, and since none of the dairies brand calves anymore, he questioned if those inspections were worth the cost to the committee. Wolfe said that most dairies have instead opted for RFID tags, and his operation has used them for about a decade. The downside is that if the animal loses the tag it loses the ID.

“It’s not as permanent as the brand,” he said.

He said he would be interested to see if female dairy cattle could be exempt from required inspection, however the bull calves, which are slaughtered for meat, would likely need to stay under the current inspection regime. He’s not against the brand, but he’s looking to help reform and strengthen it.

EID Manufacturer

Since EID was included in LB 1200, as a possible form of proving ownership, the Halloran invited a representative from Allflex to sit on the working group and provide insight into the technology.

- Andy Dorn, of Minden, is global product marketing manager for Allflex, a subsidiary of Merck Animal Health. Allfelx bills itself as “the largest provider of animal identification technology,” and a 2019 press release from the company said it provides 500 million tags for identifying, tracking and monitoring animals every year, and monitors over 5.5 million cows daily.

Farmer-Rancher

-Scott Eisenhour is a farmer-rancher in Knox County, who testified with his father last spring in favor of LB 1165 and against LB 1200. He said that he trusts 99 percent of his neighbors and he did not believe inspections were of value to his operation.

Knox County has the distinction of being the only split-inspection county in the state, and straddles the line between the inspection and non-inspection areas. Its Sherriff testified in opposition to LB 1165 last spring, saying that the assistance the brand committee provides his office when it comes to identifying and investigating stolen or missing cattle has been invaluable. However, not all Knox County residents see it that way.

Brand Committee

- Adam Sawyer, the chairman of the brand committee’s board of directors, is a banker and Angus producer from Bassett. He will represent the brand committee on the working group, and support will be provided by the committee’s executive director, John Widdowson.

Sawyer said during the Sept. 14, meeting in Alliance that his intent on the working group is to come up with ideas to keep the brand committee and work out a compromise to maintain brand inspection in Western Nebraska.

“A lot of us would love to have the brand in the whole state of Nebraska,” Sawyer said. “That’s not an option that we have at this point in time. We would like, at least of all things, to keep brand inspection in the area that we have.”

Livestock Marketing Association

Salebarns and Livestock Markets in Nebraska are a key customer of the Nebraska Brand Committee, as inspections are needed to prove and transfer ownership. A majority of the salebarn owners in the state have expressed a preference for the hot brand, especially when it comes to the liability associated with the transfer of title. However this is not unanimous, as at least one salebarn, Platte Valley Livestock in Gering, has expressed interest in using EID.

-Bryce Dibbern, Region Executive Officer with the Livestock Marketing Association, will represent the Livestock Market interests and may be accompanied by a market operator.

Other support

Rick Leonard, research analyst for the ag committee, said that he and several other individuals will provide support to the working group.

Others include Widdowson, UNL ag economist Elliott Dennis, and Laura Field from the Nebraska Department of Agriculture.

ALLIANCE, Neb. – Sens. Tom Brewer of Gordon, and Steve Erdman of Bayard, flanked by a host of Panhandle ranchers and brand inspectors, confronted the Nebraska Brand Committee leaders at the committee’s Monday, Sept. 14, meeting, over a decision the committee made earlier this month to cap brand inspector’s schedules at 40 hours per week.

Normally during a fall run, the sheer volume of cattle moving means inspectors in some parts of the state accumulate comp time as they work longer hours to ensure the inspections are completed. This was especially true last year, as many inspector positions were vacant. Inspectors then use that comp time during summer months, as they sometimes struggle to make hours because fewer cattle are moving and fewer inspections are needed.

Concerns rippled back to farmers, ranchers, truckers, and salebarns, as rumors circulated that this fall’s cap could potentially impact the number of available brand inspectors and cause a halt to commerce.

Why the cap?

In a Sept. 1 email from Nebraska Brand Committee Executive John Widdowson to brand inspectors, Widdowson told inspectors that their work week would be capped at 40 hours, with absolutely no comp time being authorized. The move, Widdowson said, was so that the brand committee could meet its budget obligations for a pot of money that’s earmarked for over-time pay.

That comp time budget issue was highlighted during a hearing last fall in Lincoln, and was part of what led Sen. John Stinner of Gering, who is chairman of the legislature’s appropriations committee, to introduce LB 1165 last spring, which would have dissolved the brand committee, ended inspections, and transferred brand recording to the Nebraska Department of Agriculture. Stinner has argued that the Brand Committee’s budget is unsustainable.

Widdowson said that with the aid of software, employee hours are being monitored daily, and that district supervisors are watching their inspectors closely to ensure they’re under. Since the directive was issued, Widdowson said that there has not been a backlog of inspections, and inspectors who do hit their 40 hours are relieved by inspectors from other areas who are under the hours cap. Widdowson said that Brand Committee projections showed that its comp time expenditure would be $240,000 over the appropriation if the committee didn’t step in. As of Aug. 1, the committee was fully staffed with 83 full time employees, 77 of whom are qualified to perform inspections. In the last fiscal year, the committee performed inspections on 3.6 million cattle.

A chink in the armor

While other state agencies receive tax dollar appropriations from the legislature itself, the Brand Committee is a cash fund agency, meaning it’s funded through the services it provides, (inspection fees, registered feedlot or RFL fees, and brand recording and renewal). However, the brand committee still has to go before the legislature and ask for permission to use its checkbook.

If the brand committee goes over its budget before the end of the biennium, it has to go before Legislature’s appropriations committee with a deficit request to spend more, and thus drawing the ire of the appropriations chairman.

“We’ve seen how Sen. Stinner has literally got a set of cross hairs on you guys, and he wouldn’t have written (LB 1165) if he didn’t want to see you guys not exist,” Brewer told the committee. “We want to make sure is that we’re that barrier to keep him from finding some chink in your armor, to say ‘they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be.’”

Widdowson tried to assuage those fears.

“Colonel, it will not happen,” Widdowson told Brewer, a retired Army Officer who represents a large district in the Sandhills in the brand inspection area. “We will not impede commerce.”

Erdman expressed concerns that the committee leadership has not communicated enough details to the public, with simple issues, such as the start time of Monday’s meeting being conflicting on the committee’s website, and the agenda not being easily accessible.

“If you want communication to go both ways with those people who have livestock, you need to make it available so they can find it, because they couldn’t come this morning.” Erdman said. “You can’t leave them out there hanging dry, you have to help them.”

Widdowson said he appreciated Erdman’s concerns, and that they’d work to make those materials available.

“At this point, no producer has been harmed.” Widdowson told Erdman. “We’ll continue to do these inspections. I understand there are a lot of people concerned, but they are concerned about something that hasn’t even happened. It’s not like there are inspections sitting there in the queue that haven’t been done. It’s not like we’ve impeded commerce, and we’re not going to let that happen.”

Board Chairman Adam Sawyer, a banker and Angus producer from Bassett, echoed Widdowson’s assurance to legislators that there would not be a bottleneck in inspections.

“All four of us on the board are producers,” Sawyer said. “We’re the last people that want commerce to be disrupted, and that’s one thing that we said when (Widdowson) first started talking about this. Whatever we do, there will not be anybody that needs an inspection that won’t get one.”

However, budget restrictions are not the sole reason for the cap.

Personnel Issues

There were several heated exchanges at several points during the public comment portion of the meeting, as the committee’s executive director dodged from direct answers and deflected questions to his subordinate district managers.

Shea Conner, a brand inspector based in Ogallala, voiced concerns about the potential impact of the hours cap.

“You say we’re not going to have our salaries cut, and I appreciate that,” Conner told Widdowson. “However, come next summer, if we don’t have that comp time built up, and we only work 20 hours, what are we supposed to do, because that is what that comp time is for?”

Widdowson said he chose not answer Conner’s question, but instead asked another question.

“Hypothetically, if we get through the fall without anyone incurring comp time, and we still get the work done, what does that say?,” he asked. “It says we’ve got too many staff.”

“And what will you do next summer, hypothetically?,” Conner asked.

“That’s when we will adjust our staff to meet the quota,” he said.

Conner said that even amid the COVID shutdown, some inspectors in her area were still fighting for hours over the summer. But heading into the fall season, they’re worried that they’ll be swamped and left to handle a wreck because the inspector to their left or right has hit their cap.

“We’re at a loss,” she said. “We have our hands tied. We can’t do anything about it.”

Rather than address Conner’s concerns, Widdowson pushed the matter onto West District Supervisor Cody Waite, which created visible discomfort among some in the audience.

“We’re just gonna have to do the best we can,” Waite said. “If it gets to the point we can’t cover Ogallala with 40 hours, and I can’t find people to help you with the sale, it will be a discussion with (Widdowson) and (Chief Investigator Dave Horton), and everybody else involved, and we’ll go from there.

“At this point guys, we don’t know. We don’t know if we have enough help up in Gordon or Rushville or Crawford. We don’t know,” Waite continued. “We don’t know if we have enough help at Ogallala, so we’re going to have to address this situation week by week by week until we come up with a solution.”

As that exchange played out, Widdowson sat silent. The tension in the room built as the comment period continued. Rancher Melissa Evans asked if there was suspicion among the brand committee brass that inspectors were padding their hours.

“Is this your kind way of saying ‘hey, clean up your act.’?,” Evans asked. “Because if it is, just tell them that. If it’s not, then work with them.”

Widdowson, again deflected and waited for a district supervisor to answer. After a pause, one spoke.

“I’d say, yes,” Kortnie Shafer said. “There is a suspicion, and how do you rein it in when you don’t really know? Until we get some real numbers, and get our system going, we really don’t know.”

“Now that we’ve got eyes on different things, we can ask why they looked at three head and it took them three hours,” Shafer said. “Things like that have been brought to our attention, and we’re not accusing them of anything, we just want to know why.”

Communication Breakdown

Gordon Rancher Dennis Child questioned why the committee was “trying to squeeze good inspectors,” to ferret out where alleged abuse may be occurring.

“There are a lot of hours out there, and we have to find where the efficiency is at,” Chris Gentry, committee board member from Hyannis, said. “If we don’t force that efficiency, you’re not going to find it.”

Child wasn’t satisfied with that answer.

“If they’ve done a good job, but the money isn’t there, that’s a failure of the management, not the brand inspectors,” Child said. “To squeeze all these good people so you can get the numbers, that doesn’t look like good management.”

Gentry said that he didn’t prefer the hours cap, but that those answers have to be found, because when the appropriations committee asks why the brand committee needs to spend another $200,000 in order to operate, they have to give those answers.

“The committee has spent a lot of money on technology, and we try to track people and where the hours are coming from,” Gentry said. “We are trying to utilize that technology so that we can reduce comp time, which is what’s causing our expenses to go over.”

“If we’ve got Jim over here whose got 20 hours, and Bob over here with 60, obviously we need to straighten that out so that we can get a balance there.”

“If it comes to a point where next Thursday we have to pay these guys overtime in order to get inspections done, that’s exactly what will happen,” Gentry said. “We’re not going to say that an inspection won’t happen just because we don’t want to pay overtime.”

“I hope that word gets out there because that’s not the intent at all.”


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