South Dakota bill to elect Brand Board members moves ahead

by Carrie Stadheim, Editor
Photo by Ruth Wiechmann

In a close vote, a bill that would create an election process for the South Dakota Brand Board members passed through the House Ag Committee on Feb. 16.

District 27 Representative Liz May, Kyle, South Dakota, a rancher and grocery store owner, championed HB 1201, with additional co-sponsors including Auch, Fitzgerald, Jensen (Kevin), Jensen (Phil), Ladner, Lems, Lesmeister, Olson, Overweg, Perry, Pinnow, and Pourier and Senators Bordeaux, Maher, and Tobin.

In committee testimony, May said that her phone “has not stopped ringing” due to concerns about brand board issues in the past year.

She said this bill would create a democratic process by which producers elect their own representation to the Brand Board. Current law requires the governor to appoint the five brand board members.

May and others said ranchers from across the state have voiced concern over a lack of action and enforcement from the brand board, and that this is not an issue between two organizations.

“This is a problem; it’s been ongoing for a long time,” she said.

Individuals from about 25 counties across the state have signed a petition asking for the Brand Board members to be elected, she said.

“Can you imagine if all of us sitting up here were appointed, and we weren’t elected? How well do you think that would work for our citizens? To me, this is the same process. If we don’t do our jobs, we get kicked out. And the producers on the western side of the state just don’t feel like they’ve been represented the best that they could be. Is it saying anything against the current brand members that are representing us? Absolutely not, they are friends of mine. It’s the process. I just can’t imagine why anybody would be against having people sit on the brand board that represent the largest industry in the state be able to go to an elected person and say, I want an answer. This isn’t working…”

The bill, in its current form, after the committee approved an amendment, would create a seven-member board. This would include one eastern South Dakota representative, one representative for the reservations, and five members for the remainder of western South Dakota (counties and portions of counties that are not within the confines of a reservation).

May said the election process within the bill mimics the election process that the Corngrowers use to elect their board.

May is excited for the bill, and believes “good things will come” from it.

The South Dakota Stockgrowers Association testified in support. Baxter Anders, representing the South Dakota Livestock Auction Markets spoke in favor of the bill on behalf of the SDLAMA and on behalf of himself personally. Anders is the owner of Philip Livestock and Belle Fourche Livestock, is a rancher, feedlot owner and backgrounder.

Anders said, through his businesses, around $250,000 to $300,000 in brand inspection dollars are collected.

His customers do not have a problem with paying the brand inspection fee, but have commented to him that they feel like they don’t have representation.

“If they have a problem with the brand board – whether it is theft or brand registrations or professionalism from a brand inspector, they have no one to turn to,” said Anders.

He reported that he has suggested to his customers that they call a brand board member or the director of the brand board for help with issues. He said he has been laughed at for suggesting that. “They say, ‘I’ve called her or them and gotten nowhere.’”

Anders reported a couple of different struggles with brand inspectors at his barn, from unprofessional behavior to physical violence.

He said he discussed his concerns with the brand board but was ignored until the situation got out of hand.

Ranchers including Vaughn Meyer, Reva; Kenny Fox, Belvidere; Joe Trask, Wasta; Bill Kluck, Mud Butte and Rick Fox, Hermosa; all spoke in favor of the bill.

Rick Fox reminded committee members that the brand program is a self-funded program and does not rely on tax dollars.

He said the brand is “not nostalgic. It’s a necessity.”

Kenny Fox said he believes in the brand inspection program and has had stray cattle returned to him over the years due to a brand inspector’s sharp eye.

The South Dakota Stockgrowers also spoke in favor of the bill.

The South Dakota Cattlemen oppose the bill. Their president Eric Jennings, Spearfish, testified that his group is concerned about the cost of an election, as well as the mechanics of one.

“Our policy supports a transparent, efficient and low cost program with fees to allow the program to be self -sustaining,” he said.

Photo by Linda Teahon

He worries that elected representatives would answer to their own district and not work collectively to solve problems. His group also worries that the brand inspection fee could increase due to the cost of mailing out ballots for elections.

Hunter Roberts, speaking for the South Dakota Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources, also opposed the bill.

He said that in his experience, the current members of the Brand Board have been “open to dialogue,” and he is confident they are working on the issues brought forth by bill proponents.

“I think the election route is the wrong way to go,” said Roberts.

He was worried about who would fill a seat if someone resigned.

The South Dakota Farm Bureau spoke against the bill.

South Dakota Brand Board Director Debbie Trapp spoke in opposition to the bill, as well.

She refuted earlier testimony which reported that all five of the current Brand Board members reside in Meade or Pennington County. She said one lives in Perkins County.

She brought up potential challenges in an election such as who would be eligible to vote, how to decide who receives a ballot if more than one person owns a brand, etc.

Trapp said that additional staff would need to be hired to deal with the election process.

She also said the number of missing/stolen cattle decreased from 2021 to 2022.

Current Brand Board member Myron Williams of Wall also opposed the bill, saying an election process would open the door for a “good old boys” club.

He defended the board and investigators saying that finding missing cattle is a “tough deal.”

“People put cattle out first of May and gather in November and say they can’t find some. By then the trail is cold,” he said.

He also said that an inspector had to be laid off because there weren’t enough cattle to justify a full time inspector at that location any longer, and that the instances reported in testimony were “isolated” instances.

The bill in its amended form passed the committee 7-6 with Auch, Lems, Sjaarda, Wittman, Ladner, St. John, and Overweg voting in favor and Schneider, Wangsness, Chase, Gross, Drew Peterson and Sauder voting against.