Stealing a baby: The industry works to prevent calf theft |

Stealing a baby: The industry works to prevent calf theft

Law enforcement, auction barns and the entire cattle industry should keep an eye out for would-be thieves of baby calves. staff photo

Some baby calves are bringing more than $8 a pound. Livestock markets across South Dakota have been reporting baby calves selling from $225 to $750 in the last few weeks.

As with anything, as the value of baby calves goes up, so does the worry about them being stolen. Bill Clarkson, a rancher and sheriff in Harding County in northwestern South Dakota, said his office typically gets a few calls a year about baby calves going missing, though he hasn’t heard of any this year. “We’ve got a lot of guys who are running open range, with no fences on either side of the county road. Someone can drive right up to a baby calf and throw it in the back of the pickup,” he said. That’s why he and his staff patrol make their presence known a little more often this time of year, especially the night before sales in the local livestock markets.

“The sale rings are good about watching for anything suspicious, and around here people know most of the vehicles that have a reason to be here,” Clarkson said. “We won’t hesitate to stop someone with a pickup and trailer, or vehicle that looks suspicious. If it’s a rancher we stop they’re plumb happy to let us look in their trailer. They’re happy we’re out there.”

While catching someone who is suspected of stealing baby calves is tough enough, he said the real challenge comes in proving that calf is stolen. “About the only way we can prove it is to catch someone with a calf in their vehicle, then take the calf back to the cow. If she accepts it, we know it’s hers.” If further proof is required, the investigators can rely on DNA evidence that links the calf to the cow.

Bill Hutchinson, a rancher from White River, S.D., has lost his share of baby calves that he says can be explained only by theft. “A gravel road goes right by our pasture. I’d go out there and there’d be a cow standing by the fence, bawling. It was pretty obvious somebody picked up the calf.” He said he hasn’t had any issues in recent years, but for a while he lost one or two each year that way. He said he never had much hope of getting the calves back because they weren’t worth enough to justify an investigation.

Now, he said, with baby calves bringing upwards of $500, there’s more of an incentive for both stealing them, and recovering them. Hutchinson fixed the problem for his own business by moving his cattle away from the road until after they were branded.

However, he’d like to see a process put in place that would allow for more transparent tracking of the sale of unbranded baby calves, specifically by requiring livestock markets to maintain lists of anyone selling baby calves. “If I’m missing baby calves, and someone in the area is selling baby calves, I’d like to know that.” Anyone selling an unbranded calf has to sign an affidavit of ownership, but Hutchinson would like that information to be more readily available, or even published in the newspaper.

He’d also like to see the reward for catching livestock thieves extend to unbranded baby calves. Right now the policy reads, “The South Dakota Brand Board will pay up to $5,000 reward to any person who provides information leading to the conviction of any person for the crime of stealing livestock which are branded with a registered brand with the board.” Hutchinson said he’d like that to be amended to include unbranded baby calves, to let people know they take that kind of theft seriously as well.

The keys to stopping cattle thieves are neighbors who pay attention and producers who report their losses, Clarkson said. He encourages anyone who even thinks they may have had a calf stolen to contact their local sheriff’s office and the brand board office. “Be aware of vehicles that are traveling through. Some of the suspicious vehicles we’ve had reported are pickups with toppers on the back. Get a license plate number if you can,” Clarkson said.

The price range for new calves depends on age and demand, according to Lanning Edwards, an auctioneer and field man for Mitchell Livestock in Mitchell, S.D., for the last 25 years. “We’re seeing day-old calves go for $100-200, 10 days to two weeks for $250-400 and anything over a month or so we’re seeing in the $500-600 range. There was a lot more demand for the newborns earlier this spring, when there wasn’t much choice in age, but now, when there are more to choose from, they’ll go for the big ones.”

Brett Loughlin, a field man for Belle Fourche Livestock, in Belle Fourche, S.D., said he sees more of a connection between the weather and the market. “When it’s storming the price gets a lot stronger than when there’s green grass and the sun is shining,” he said. “People lose a lot of calves in storms and blizzards, so there’s more demand for the calves that come in.” With the improvement in the weather Loughlin said he’s starting to see the market taper off.

Loughlin also said the price of open cows affects the price of baby calves. Since open cow prices are high, some producers are deciding it makes more sense from an economic standpoint to sell the open cow and save the cost of buying a baby calf.