Cattle rustling on the rise in southern Plains

Apr 23, 2010
by WLJ

One signature occurrence of the frontier is not only alive, it is on the rise. Cattle rustlers are plaguing ranchers from Texas to Colorado to Missouri, using a variety of strategies and techniques to steal and sell millions of dollars worth of cattle.

In October 2009, Ronnie Swan was away from his ranch in Thalia, TX, for several days and left the responsibilities of the ranch to his full-time employee. But when Swan returned, he discovered that five yearlings had disappeared.

"He just loaded them up and sold them at a local sale barn about 80 miles from the farm," he said. "I was shocked that he did it and that he took them to the sale barn that we often use."

Larry Gray, Texas Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association’s (TSCRA) director of law enforcement, said thieves usually turn the cattle as quickly as possible.

"They head directly to the sale barn or to wherever they plan to sell those cattle. They just want that check," said Gray.

But what many thieves don’t realize is that Texas and Oklahoma sale barns have market inspectors who check the physical description of the cattle, among other details.

"It’s our way of watching for stolen cattle coming through the auction barns, and we catch a good many this way," Gray said.

And while many states are continually working to reduce thefts, the most dependable method is centuries old—the cattle brand.

"Even with the technology advancements, branding is still the best means of identification because it’s permanent and not easily obliterated," said Gray, who investigates stolen cattle in Texas and Oklahoma.

Swan, whose stolen yearlings weren’t branded, said it was a busy time for the ranch when those calves hit the ground, and they didn’t get time to brand them. "He picked the right group to sort through, knowing that without the brand, it would be harder to tie the stolen cattle back to him," Swan explained.

But the special rangers with TSCRA were still able to recover his stolen property. The former employee will soon be sentenced, but cases like this sometimes take time, Gray said.

That time is increased significantly when cattle cross state lines. TSCRA works with other organizations, such as the International Livestock Identification Association, to investigate the stolen property.

"We work with Louisiana almost on a daily basis, as well as New Mexico and Colorado because they are in close proximity to Texas and Oklahoma," Gray said.

Northeast Texas and northeast Oklahoma are two of the main areas affected by cattle rustling. "There are many absentee owners, so it sometimes takes the owner a week to realize some of their herd is missing," Gray explained.

Often, rustlers, who work alone or in small groups and have a background in cattle or some aspect of agriculture, scout an area that is close to the road and load the cows into trailers.

"Cattle rustling isn’t something a novice usually attempts. It’s always somebody who at sometime in their life dealt with the livestock industry because they have to know how to load, handle and sell cattle," Gray explained.

But, increasingly, there is a new type of rustler—the white-collar type in which people hired to raise or sell rancher’s cattle skim money off the sale. Rustlers will buy cattle from another area and tell them when the cattle are delivered, they’ll send a bank draft, Gray said. But that check, if one is ever sent, is usually worthless or of insufficient funds.

With the weak economy, thefts have increased and will probably continue to rise, Gray said. And ranches are increasingly vulnerable in these economic downturns because along with cattle, thieves steal horses, saddles, trailers and other miscellaneous ranch property.

In 2007, about 2,400 head of cattle were reported stolen in Texas and Oklahoma, according to Carmen Fenton, the association’s spokesperson. Thefts increased in 2008 by 4,000 head to a total of 6,404. And last year, a total of 7,400 cattle and horses were reported stolen.

"The special rangers worked closely with federal, state and local law enforcement officials to recover a total market value of $4,825,475.58 of livestock and property," Fenton said. And in 2008, a total value of $3,629,574 of livestock and property was recovered.

"Cattle are one of the very few items that a thief can steal and get fair market value when they sell them," Gray said.

The rangers are usually able to account for about 80 percent of the branded cattle, stolen or lost, Felton said.

In the recent years, partly due to the increasing number of thefts, TSCRA started the Crime Watch program and Operation Cow Thief.

Crime Watch is a website on which the association posts reports of missing livestock, details of the cattle, including the brand and location, as well as contact information for the special rangers investigating the case.

"This program has been fairly successful because it brings awareness to that county and community to be on the lookout in regards to the livestock," Gray said.

Operation Cow Thief is a reward program created three years ago and funded by TSCRA members. If an arrest is made due to a tip, then a reward is issued, Gray explained.

And Gray encourages all cattle producers and owners of livestock and farm and ranch equipment to take precautions to protect themselves against theft.

He recommends branding cattle and keeping equipment out of view from the road, along with "keeping a regular count when feeding or checking the herd so a report can be filed as quickly as possible," he said.

Swan, who has 5,000 acres of farm and ranch land, has made a few significant changes since last October.

"My number one change has been to keep a closer count on my cows, as well as keeping better records," he said.

He also changed his locks and became a member of TSCRA. "They helped me even when I wasn’t a member, and with their signs on my fences, I don’t think thieves will be too keen to mess with my property," he said with a laugh. And the neighbors have joined together, keeping a closer eye on each other’s property, hoping to minimize future thefts. — Julie Vrazel, WLJ Correspondent