- Associated Press - Monday, April 20, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - The cost of brand inspections for cattle could rise to $1.10 per head under a bill advanced Monday by Nebraska lawmakers.

Senators gave first-round approval to an increase in the maximum fee charged by the Nebraska Brand Committee, which inspects cattle and investigates missing and stolen cattle. Inspections are mandatory in the western two-thirds of Nebraska anytime a bovine animal changes ownership. The region includes more than 7,000 brand owners.

Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis said the committee has reached the maximum fee that it can charge under state law. The ceiling was last increased from 65 cents to 75 cents per head in 2005.

Davis said the committee has seen its income fall because of the declining number of cattle inspections between 2012 and 2014 in the wake of severe and widespread drought. A shortage of forage for feed led many producers to sell their cattle.

“Cattle herds do not rebuild easily after a drought year because ranchers tend to graze lightly the following year to allow the forage to recover,” said Davis, a rancher.

Davis said most western states already charge about $1 per head for inspections, including Oregon, Washington, Nevada, South Dakota, North Dakota and Wyoming. He said the committee needs to upgrade its records system, and is struggling to recruit and retain quality employees because of low salaries.

Lawmakers say the committee has been conservative in raising its fees and sometimes has been able to lower them. Members are appointed by the governor and are usually recommended for the position by industry groups such as the Nebraska Cattlemen Association and Nebraska Farm Bureau.

The original bill would have allowed the fee to rise as high as $1.25, but senators agreed to a scaled-back increase amid concerns that it would squeeze producers. Davis said the full increase to $1.10 would likely take several years.

Sen. Ken Schilz, an Ogallala farmer, said lawmakers and other stakeholders should take a longer-term view of how the service is funded so its revenue is more predictable, such as payment models other than a per-head fee because it drops sharply when the number of brand inspections declines.

Sen. John Kuehn of Heartwell, a veterinarian whose family owns a feed yard, said the agency needs to remain financially solvent and inspect cattle on a timely basis. Kuehn said the agency has several checks to keep watch over its budget, including the five-member brand committee and the Legislature.

The bill advanced on a 28-2 vote.

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The bill is LB85

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