HOT COMMODITY: Reports show cattle theft on the rise in some places in U.S.
Tips to prevent theft:
1. Brand! Every person interviewed for this story encouraged producers to brand their cattle to help identify missing animals.
2. Think like a thief and consider adjusting some management practices. “Don’t make a habit of feeding at the same time every day,” said Larry Gray of Texas. “The thief watches the farmer or rancher drive off, closes the gate on the cattle in the pens, loads them and away he goes.”
3. Consider a lock on a chain. “You’ll know right away if cattle are missing,” Gray points out.
According to Tri-State Livestock News market data, 550-pound steer calves were valued over $2.50 per pound at the end of January, conservatively up at least 30 percent over last year’s record prices.
Newspaper headlines shout, “Arkansas Man Arrested for Theft of Livestock after Manhunt,” “TSCRA Crime Watch: Cattle stolen in southeast Texas,” “As beef prices rise, cattle herds go missing in Idaho,” and so on.
Texas and Southwest Cattle Raisers Association executive director of law enforcement and theft prevention Larry Gray said his organization’s 30 special rangers investigate cattle and ranch equipment theft cases in Texas and Oklahoma.
“Cattle theft is on the rise mostly due to the high market right now. Cattle are a valuable commodity,” Gray said. The states surrounding Texas share theft reports with him, and they are all experiencing an uptick in the problem, he said, due to the rise in cattle prices.
The motive behind a lot of thefts, both livestock and other property, is the need for drug money, Gray said.
More than a year ago, Oklahoma rancher Jet McCoy reportedly lost 600 pound steers, 99 of them. Suspects in custody admitted to being methamphetamine users and allegedly stole the livestock to sell and fund their habit. According to an official news release from the state of Oklahoma, half the steers were branded but Oklahoma does not require brand inspection when cattle are sold.
In Texas, brand inspection is conducted at salebarns but is not required for private treaty sales. “A thief is going to try and turn whatever he steals into cash and taking them to a cattle auction is the fastest way to do that,” Gray said. “If they steal a laptop or an iPad, he might get 10 to 25 cents on the dollar, but with cattle, he will get fair market value.
Gray said they catch thieves “all the time,” at Texas salebarns. “A lot of them don’t realize that we’ve got brand inspectors there.” But when the thieves cross the state line to Oklahoma, Arkansas or Louisiana where there is no brand inspection required at the market, “nobody looks at the cattle. There are no questions asked. The salebarn just cuts them a check,” he said.
After a thief is once caught at a Texas auction barn trying to sell stolen cattle, he or she usually wises up and heads farther east to a non-brand inspection state or try to sell the cattle private treaty, Gray said, and catching the perpetrator becomes much harder.
Jim Dunn, a brand inspector at St. Francis Livestock in St. Francis, Kansas, said producers can register brand in the state, but less than 5 percent of the cattle that come through his barn in the northwestern part of the state are branded. The state of Kansas does not require brand inspection but several salebarns located in the northern and western parts of the state that are next to brand inspection states Colorado and Nebraska inspect cattle that come through their markets.
Dunn said he does identify a strayed or stolen animal once in a while but would probably find more if more producers applied brands to their cattle. A producer recently reported 11 head of calves stolen out of his corrals but the cattle aren’t branded and without statewide brand inspection, finding the calves again is unlikely.
“The thief could have taken them anywhere in Kansas and sold them again,” Dunn said.
In the past five fiscal years, the number of cattle reported strayed and/or stolen has been up and down. In recent years, 2013 saw the highest number at 448 head, while in 2012 just 106 head were reported missing. Records show 43 head returned in 2013 and 18 in 2012. Assuming a conservative value of $800 per head in 2013, the state saw an economic loss of $324,000.
Dunn and the other five or so Kansas inspectors write inspections for cattle headed to slaughter in Colorado, which allows the plants to process the cattle immediately rather than waiting for a Colorado inspector, who might only be available for a few hours during the day at each particular plant.
Colorado law now requires that owners of “slick” or non-branded cattle produce proof of ownership when selling cattle in that state. “They don’t want to sell stolen cattle,” Dunn said. So he occasionally writes inspection papers for slick calves headed from Kansas to Colorado to be sold.
Jay Van Rein, with California’s Department of Food and Agriculture, the agency that handles brand inspection, said that while it seems logical that cattle thefts would be trending upward with the higher market, he hasn’t noticed it. “The drought has gotten so much worse, the general overall trend in the industry is that there are fewer cattle here. “While the years from 2004 to 2012 showed at least 1,000 head stolen per year, fiscal year 2013 ended with 730 head reported stolen and for the first half of fiscal year 2014, 343 have been reported.”
Van Rein speculated that producers are keeping a closer eye on their smaller herd numbers, and pointed out that the drought conditions are requiring producers to spend more time feeding and watering cattle than usual. That added time and attention spent by livestock owners out in the pasture might be averting would-be thieves.
A paper trail involving brand inspection paperwork, plus eartag information and other identifying marks are used to help track down the missing cattle, he said.
Montana’s John Grainger, administrator for the brands enforcement division of the ag department, said his state isn’t seeing a noticeable increase in cattle thefts either.
In 2013, though, he reports that over $6 million in strayed or stolen cattle were returned to their rightful owners.
In Montana, cattle that change ownership or cross the county line must be looked at. “Our program absolutely helps prevent theft,” he said. “You would assume those cattle that are stolen will go to a non-brand state.”
He or his inspectors can stop a vehicle that appears to have livestock and ask for brand paperwork.
Ongoing communication with other states helps inspectors catch thieves or find strays too. Cattle leaving the state without health papers are often a red flag, Grainger said, and should be looked at more closely.
DNA tests are also helping the inspectors identify cattle owners, Grainger said. They take a hair sample on any suspicious cattle. If a producer later reports a missing calf, the hair can be sent to the lab, along with hair from the calf’s mother, and tests can prove a relationship. With the cost of DNA tests dropping substantially, a $75 test is worthwhile to recover a $1,600 calf, Grainger says.
In eastern Idaho where most of the cattle are spread in large pastures – many on federal grazing permits – brand inspection is crucial, said inspector Blake Kilpatrick. The cattle are inspected upon change of ownership or leaving the brand area. This means when cattle arrive at an auction barn, the consignor must provide proof of ownership if the cattle don’t bear his or her brand. A fresh brand is a warning sign too.
Kilpatrick and other inspectors from his state can stop any traffic that looks like it is hauling livestock. He said he tries to keep an eye on his community, and will ask a vehicle to pull over if it looks suspicious. If the driver produces accurate paperwork, he sends them on their way, but if something isn’t right, he can ask them to go somewhere appropriate, unload the cattle and look them over.
In his local area, theft has not gone up a lot even with higher cattle prices, he said. He credits this, in part, to a strong brand inspection system. “As silly as it sounds, in this area it is hard for them to get rid of them. If some meth head is trying to make money, we’d pick it up, our auctions would pick it up,” he said. “I credit the state, I think our state has done a good job. We watch it close.
He adds that many potential thieves are not cowboys and would have a difficult time gathering and making off with cattle in a large pasture. He adds that many non-ranchers are not aware of today’s cattle values.
Kilpatrick believes that of the cattle that are stolen, many of them end up being slaughtered. “I’d like to know how many cattle we lost to butchering,” he said.
Ranch size and expanse are relative, and while Idaho ranches are not small, the outfits farther south are spread out even more, potentially giving thieves better access, Kilpatrick believes. “In Nevada they have problems, they have cattle they don’t ever bring in. If cattle are 30 miles from your house it is hard to watch them,” he said.
“Mistakes are made, it’s not an exact science. We do the best we can,” Kilpatrick said, but added that several western states have “really good” inspection programs that he believes, keep theft at a minimum. “If you go to where there are not brand laws, it is way easier to gather up cattle and move them because nobody will pay attention.”
A brand is a permanent, easily identified mark and should be used, Kilpatrick said. “If you can’t help yourself, we can’t help you.” A no-brand calf or cow is difficult for a livestock owner to prove ownership on, even when it is recovered, he said. Other things like earmarks can also be helpful especially in picking out a stray. “You notice if there is a calf with an earmark in a producer’s herd that doesn’t earmark his calves.
“If you do the best you can and we do the best we can, we’ll get ’er close to zero,” Kilpatrick said.