Cattle brands aren't mandatory in Kansas, but that isn't stopping the state from deploying a new tech-savvy way to register the time-tested livestock markings.
Kansas, the historic linchpin of the American cattle industry and a leading beef producer, is for the first time in state history migrating its cattle brand registration process entirely online.
The idea of branding cattle, and registering those brands, may sound like the history of how the Midwest was won, or else a John Ford film. But Kansas — where once cattle were herded to trains at Dodge City and Abilene, then shipped to Chicago for processing — now has its own cattle-raising industry and four of the nation’s top five cattle processors.
Together with Nebraska, Kansas produces 25 percent of America’s cattle, but it doesn’t mandate they be branded — though a state Department of Agriculture (DOA) official estimated more than 75 percent are. Those that are branded must register the design and location of their brand with the state.
Currently an average of 18,000 brands are registered with the state and renewed every five years at a $45 cost. (The brand program is self-supporting.) Until recently, in a telling time lapse, while renewals were due April 1 — with about 3,000 coming up in rotation every year — brands didn’t expire until Oct. 1, six months later.
The reason was simple: Kansas needed the months in between to process the paperwork — for that’s exactly what it was. A listing of active brands, the so-called “brand book” printed twice a decade, migrated online in 2014, and brand applications are available online to be printed.
But until this April, the process of registering a brand — originating a unique mark and an unused location from one of six on an animal’s hips, ribs or shoulders — has been done entirely by mail and telephone, and if an idea for a brand was rejected ranchers had to resubmit it. By mail.
“We heard it all the time: ‘If I can write a check, if I can buy a new car online, why can I not renew a $45 brand online?’” said Dr. Justin Smith, the state’s deputy animal health commissioner.
And so, nearly two years ago, after learning the state’s Pesticide and Fertilizer Program was familiar with KRS, officials began conversations with software provider Kelly Registration Systems (KRS) about utilizing its proprietary software and migrating aspects of the brand division — the brand book, registrations and renewals — to its private cloud.
“We looked at doing it in-house, but we just came to the point of, this mouse trap had already been developed,” Smith added.
KRS, which is headquartered in Georgia, helps agricultural chemical makers create and market products, and assists departments of agriculture and similar agencies in funds collection, and data capture and tracking. It handles 16 other online licensing processes for 33 other state departments of agriculture, but partnering with the Kansas DOA meant breaking new ground.
“This is the first time that we’ve done a state that has the livestock brands or cattle brands. I think the biggest thing that makes it unique is the ability to draw the brand on the screen and not have to have it submitted as a PDF,” said KRS’ Chief Technology Officer Stuart Edmondson.
Previously brand creators relied on pencil and protractor — calling the state to query Kansas officials on the particulars of whether a similar design or location may have already been registered, then mailing in their finished work and waiting for it to be accepted or rejected.
Starting in April, ranchers can go online anytime of the day or night and create their own brand from eight “keyboards” of letters and numbers, their upside-down variants, and roughly 84 symbols, including a half-arc, a quarter-circle, a semi-circle, a spade, a heart and a question mark. Letters and numbers can be also rotated, offering additional variety. The renewal process is slightly ahead, having been taken online through KRS in March 2016.
Smith said he wasn’t privy to the exact amount of the contract with KRS, but the cost was shared by DOA, the Pesticide and Fertilizer Program, and other state divisions.
Rolling out online brand registration and renewal likely won’t be complete for some time, as in some cases officials are still working to uncover email addresses for cattlemen previously only reachable by mail or telephone.
But as the agreement proves its worth, the state is finding that employees previously saddled with handling brand registration paperwork now have more time for other tasks.
“We’re seeing that positive already in terms of the amount of paper that [we] can run through the office in a day. All that does is allow us the time to become better servants to the client as far as lost and stolen cattle reports. Those need to get out on a timely basis,” Smith said.
Two other cattle-raising states, North Dakota and Nevada, have differing approaches to brand registration — but one has taken aspects of tracking cattle online, and a rancher said he expects that process to continue.
In North Dakota, the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, a private industry organization and spokesperson, took over brand administration from the state about 20 years ago. An official said brands aren't required, but if ranchers use them, they must be registered with the state, at a cost of $25 per position per species.
North Dakota makes brand registration forms available online, but submissions, certificates and acceptance or denial letters are sent by mail — though upon request the department will also notify ranchers of their brand’s acceptance or denial by telephone or email.
Stan Misek, chief brand inspector for the association, said there is some interest in taking brand registration online — but the idea hasn't reached critical mass.
"Well, yeah, they want to do that, but we’re not that high tech yet. I know a lot of people who don’t even have a cellphone," Misek said. "I think as ranchers start getting younger, that’s when we’re going to get a push to go online."
In Nevada, rancher Dave Stix Jr. is president of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, a nonprofit cattle industry trade association. He’s also CEO of the Stix Cattle Co. and raises around 2,500 head of Black Angus and Red Angus cattle.
Nevada cattlemen aren’t required to brand their cattle unless they’re grazed on public land, Stix said — noting that roughly 87 percent of the state is, however, public land — but those that do register must pay $120 and renew every four years.
New brand applications and renewals are done by mail, but Stix said state brand inspectors use tablets to do onsite brand inspections. He praised the state Department of Agriculture for having “really stepped it up as far as technology,” and said he expects it to continue migrating processes online.
“We’ve gotten along with the paper for a long time, but I think as long as it’s done right, it’ll happen in due time and it’ll happen properly. No need to rush it,” Stix said, noting that despite the emergence of radio ID ear tags, he believes the brand remains the best way to identify cattle.
“They’ve been trying to get us to put radio ID into cattle using our radio signal. Those are lost, we find ’em in our corrals, a lot of the cattle rub them off their ears,” Stix said. “There’s a proper way and that’s the brand. There’s no better way."