Rustling costs ranchers millions in poor economy
ST. LOUIS (AP) — 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."
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."
There's no clearinghouse that tracks thefts nationally, but statistics among certain states are staggering. In Texas — the nation's biggest cattle producer — and to a lesser extent Oklahoma, some 4,500 cattle have been reported missing or stolen this year, according to Fenton's group. The association's special rangers managed to recover or account for $4.8 million in stolen ranch property each of the previous two years, most of it steers, bulls, cows and calves.
Such 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.