By ERICA GOODE
MORGAN HILL, Calif. — In the half-light of a winter evening here, a tawny calf skitters across the pasture after its mother, a Lazy T brand visible on its right hip. The brand, used by the Tilton Ranch since Janet Burback’s parents settled on this land in 1917, appears on the ranchers’ shirts, their trucks and their business cards.
To Ms. Burback, the brand is a matter of pride and tradition. “Anybody who’s still branding their cattle, that’s the last hold on something their grandparents and great-grandparents started,” she said.
But it is also a matter of necessity. When a cow strays or falls into the hands of rustlers — still a significant threat — it is the brand she counts on to bring the animal home.
So, like many other ranchers in California and other Western states, Ms. Burback looks with suspicion on a federal plan to institute an identification system for cattle, one that emphasizes numbered ear tags rather than brands as the official markers of a cow’s identity. Ranchers worry that the new regulation, in the final phase of revision, represents a first step toward ending branding, a method they regard as the most visible, permanent and reliable way of identifying who owns which cow.
Federal officials have long argued that a national identification system is necessary to quickly trace outbreaks of diseases like bovine brucellosis, tuberculosis and mad cow, and that it would protect not only the health of animals and humans but also the cattle industry, which suffered in 2003 after the discovery of mad cow disease in a dairy cow in Washington State.
But cattle ranchers have not been enthusiastic about mandatory ear tags. An earlier federal proposal that started with a voluntary trial met with fierce opposition and was scuttled in 2009.
The new rule would require tagging — either with radio frequency devices or lower-cost metal “brite” tags — of cattle moved across state lines. Each tag would carry a unique numeric code. Stored in a database, the codes would allow animal health authorities to determine rapidly where an animal came from in the event of a disease outbreak.
Aware that it is treading on delicate territory, the Department of Agriculture has included an exception in the rule, allowing brands to be used as unofficial identification in trade between states that agree to accept the method. Fourteen states have brand inspection laws, most of them in the West and Southwest.
Yet many ranchers remain deeply skeptical. The department received close to 1,600 comments on the proposed regulation, many of them negative. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association has given qualified support to the proposal but said it would also like some parts clarified, and the inclusion of branding as an official identification method.
Opposition is especially strong among ranchers in California and other Western states. Although the Agriculture Department has said it will initially provide metal ear tags at no cost — the electronic versions cost $2 to $4 apiece — many ranchers believe the program will prove more costly than federal officials have predicted. And they are leery of federal intrusion into their business practices.
“It all comes down to a bureaucrat in Washington, D.C., behind a desk making the rules and deciding what’s best for you as a rancher and you as a ranching family, and that’s what people distrust,” said Kevin Kester, president of the California Cattlemen’s Association. The association, Mr. Kester said, opposes the rule in its current form and has written to the Agriculture Department asking for revisions, including greater recognition of branding and raising the age at which cattle must be tagged.
Most ranchers here say they recognize the need for some sort of tracking system and many, like Ms. Burback, use electronic ear tags in addition to branding, but as a marketing tool rather than for identification. The electronic tags are increasingly important in exports to other countries, which account for about 15 percent of American beef and just over $5 billion in sales. Japan and South Korea both require electronic identification tags that verify the animal’s age and place of birth.
And some in the industry are ardent supporters of the federal plan. Jim Warren, the owner of 101 Livestock, an auction market in Aromas, Calif., said he thought the rule made sense. “It’s a no-brainer,” he said.
Mr. Warren, who sells electronic identification tags to the Central Valley producers who send 35,000 cows a year to his auction market, said the ear tags are a way for ranchers to say, “I raised this animal, it came from my place and I identified it, so if there is a problem you can trace it back to me and I stand behind it.” Brands, he believes, are outmoded and less efficient in helping officials track down disease threats because ranchers in different states can register the same brand, making tracking difficult when animals are commingled in feed lots.
The tags, which are stapled into an animal’s ear, are also less painful for the cow, Mr. Warren said.
“I just want to get away from it because I think we’ve got a better way,” he said.
But for most ranchers, ear tags will never inspire the same love and trust as the double sixes, circle Ts and other symbols that have marked cattle since the Spanish arrived in the early 1700s. And they worry that even with the nod to branding in the federal proposal, in an age of increasing reliance on electronic devices, it would eventually spell the end of the cattle brand.
Jack Lavers, a sixth-generation rancher whose family has run cattle in the mountains north of Bakersfield since 1858, said that when electronic identification tags were instituted in Australia, brand inspectors stopped paying attention to brands. He fears the same will happen here.
“In this industry, time is money,” he said. “It’s human nature. We’re eventually going to get lazy about it and the brand inspectors are going to say, ‘Well, this electronic brand matches the brand ownership,’ and quit looking at the brand.”
But ear tags, Mr. Lavers said, can be cut off by rustlers — 1,200 to 1,400 cows are stolen each year in California, according to the state Department of Food and Agriculture’s bureau of livestock identification — or torn off in thickets or on rocky bluffs as cows make their way across the rough country that typifies much of California’s grazing land.
And while he appreciates the lore and tradition of branding — “the heraldry of the range,” as the historian J. Evetts Haley called it — Mr. Lavers said he brands for hard, practical reasons.
“I don’t brand my cattle to just brand them for fun,” he said. “I’m not doing it just to burn an animal. I’m doing it because it’s a permanent mark of identification. It’s scarred into the hide, and it’s there forever.”