Even with cattle theft rampant in much of the nation's midsection, Oklahoma rancher Ryan Payne wasn't worried about anyone messing with his cows and calves. By his estimation, his pasture is so far off the beaten path “you need a helicopter to see it.”
That changed last month when Payne, 37, checked on his livestock and found a ghoulish scene: Piles of entrails from two Black Angus calves he says thieves gutted “like they were deer.” They made off with the meat and another 400-pound calf in a heist he estimated cost him $1,800.
“Gosh, times are tough, and maybe people are truly starving and just need the meat,” he said. “But it's shocking. I can't believe people can stoop that low.”
Aiming for quick score
While the brazenness may be unusual, the theft isn't. High beef prices have made cattle attractive as a quick score for people struggling in the sluggish economy, and other livestock are being taken, too. Six thousand lambs were stolen from a feedlot in Texas, and nearly 1,000 hogs have been stolen in recent weeks from farms in Iowa and Minnesota. The thefts add up to millions of dollars in losses for U.S. ranches.
Authorities say today's thieves are sophisticated compared to the horseback bandits of the rugged Old West. They pull up livestock trailers in the middle of the night and know how to coax the animals inside. Investigators suspect it's then a quick trip across state lines to sell the animals at auction barns.
“It almost has to be someone who knows about the business, including just knowing where to take the cattle,” said Carmen Fenton, a spokeswoman for the 15,000-member Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, formed in the 1870s specifically to combat cattle rustlers. “It's crazy to think we're still in business.”
Thefts also are happening in places once spared. In southwestern Missouri's Jasper County, not far from a regional stockyard, about 100 of the nearly 180 head of cattle stolen this year were snatched during a recent six-week stretch, sheriff's Lt. Ron Thomas said.
“Occasionally one or two have gotten stolen (over the years), but not this many in such a short time. They've gotten us big time,” he said, figuring the stolen livestock have been whisked off to another state. “These guys are not your typical fly-by-night, let's-steal-a-cow kinda people. They know exactly what they're doing. They're pretty slick, and they're bold.”
Investigators have found clues to be elusive, partly because thieves often artfully conceal their crimes by replacing pasture fences they've cut to get to the animals, Thomas said. Ranchers unaccustomed to counting their cattle each day may not realize any are missing for a week or more, and by then, any tire tracks or other evidence may be gone.
Brands not required
The other problem is that while brands are widely used in the West, three states hard hit by livestock thefts — Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas — don't require them. That's hampered investigators' efforts to match recovered cattle to owners or to relay to stockyards markings to watch for when strangers haul in livestock to be sold.
While a voluntary national livestock identification system exists, few ranchers and farmers participate in it.
Owners' vigilance has paid off in some cases. A Colorado rancher who was hunting prairie dogs spotted one of his branded, missing cows on another man's property. Deputies swooped in and found 36 cows and 31 calves worth $68,000 and belonging to nine different people.
Back in Oklahoma, Payne replaced old wire gates on his ranch near Chelsea, with “big, old heavy-duty steel ones,” hoping to safeguard his other cows.