For years the family with a couple of riding horses or a single dairy cow pretty much escaped Nevada's livestock tax.
The tax is 28 cents a head for stock cattle, 53 cents for dairy cattle and 75 cents a head for horses, mules and burros, 7 cents per pig and 6 cents for goats.
Dennis Journigan, deputy chief of Livestock Identification, says the big ranchers all pay faithfully each year and generate the vast majority of the money needed to operate Nevada's livestock inspection system.
With more than 520,000 cattle and some 70,000 domestic horses in Nevada, it's not a small job. The division employs 95 inspectors around the state and has an annual budget of more than $1 million.
"Not one dime of this money comes from the state treasury," he said. "It all comes from the livestock tax."
But when it came to the family with one or two animals, it just wasn't worth the trouble to find and bill them.
"It's the assessor's offices who do collections ,and they wouldn't bill somebody for 26 or 75 cents," he said. "It cost them more than that to send the bill."
As a result, the tax was really only collected from the ranchers with thousands of animals.
But all those small owners are still entitled to the services of the Livestock Identification Division and, in fact, are required to go through the division to buy or sell, much like registering a car at the Department of Motor Vehicles. With the numbers of individuals, especially in the Carson-Douglas area, who keep one or two animals, Agriculture Director Paul Iverson said it became necessary to find a way to get everyone to pay their fair share.
A big increase in the tax, which would hurt ranchers, was out of the question. So Iverson said the 1997 Legislature agreed to a minimum of $5 for each livestock owner per year. He said that way, it's worth billing individual horse owners yet doesn't hit the ranchers who are already paying thousands to the division every year.
Journigan said it's still 75 cents a head for horses, 28 cents per cow and so on, but the owner pays the same $5 minimum until his total bill passes that amount. A horse owner, for example, would still pay just $5 until he bought his seventh animal, which would run his bill to $5.25 a year.
"It's fair," said Journigan. "If you sell an animal, you're supposed to use us. That's the law. If you lose your animal, you're supposed to call us. We provide a lot of services."
If a horse is stolen, the division is required to get it back and prosecute the thief if possible. When livestock is moved in and out of state or across Nevada, brand inspectors issue the permits and stop trucks along the road to make sure no one is taking stock that isn't owned.
Although the law is nearly 3 years old, he said it's getting better known now because more and more people are getting those $5 annual bills.
The assessors find most of the animals when they do their periodic reappraisal of homes in the area and add the horse, cow, sheep or pig in the back yard to the list.
"We don't go out looking in people's back yards," said Journigan.
After three years, he said, they probably have just about half the small livestock owners on their tax list, but the percentage is growing as assessors find and record more and more of them.