Hay theft and animal abandonment continue to rise

Dec 21, 2012

Some ranchers in western and midwestern states suspect increased feed costs and drought conditions are prompting people to abandon animals and steal expensive hay and farming equipment.

Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst said thieves are targeting large bundles of hay left out in fields to be harvested, hauling them off and selling them. With winter approaching and grass dying out in one of the worst droughts in decades, unguarded bales are tempting as the price of hay escalates.

The problem is getting so bad nationwide that some hay growers in U.S. farm states are putting global positioning units inside their bales to track them in the event they are stolen.

The Larimer County Sheriff’s Office in Fort Collins, CO, has noticed a definite spike in hay thefts the past year, said John Schulz, public information officer. Last September, a farmer had hay worth $5,000 stolen directly from his field and another $800 in hay damaged.

A relentless drought and significant increases in hay prices are driving the rise in thefts, Schulz said, adding there have been about half a dozen such thefts in Larimer County. “They are stealing those big, huge round bales, not just throwing a square bale in the back of a pickup,” he said. One thief even brazenly hot-wired a loader to steal hay.

In another incident, a trailer stacked with hay was stolen, as well as a saddle and horse tack from the same property. On another occasion, thieves were caught in the act, but ran away, leaving behind a vehicle, which the owner claimed had been stolen, after he was contacted by deputies. That incident remains under investigation.

“Essentially, the drought has created quite a demand for hay, and there’s not as much available. The price has increased almost twofold over the past year,” Schulz said, mentioning a fraud case in which buyers paid someone in Texas for hay, but it was never delivered.

Some farmers are sprinkling edible confetti with identification numbers on their hay, much like ranchers brand their cattle to show ownership. Hay theft is a nationwide problem from California to Maine and Vermont, Schulz said. Cases also have been reported in Britain. “It’s literally happening worldwide.”

Bill Hammerich, the Colorado Livestock Association’s chief executive officer, said with hay costs ranging from $200 to $300 a ton, some thieves think it’s worth the risk of stealing it off fields. He said he has heard that hay worth anywhere from a few thousand dollars to up to $60,000 has been stolen from Colorado’s prime agriculture areas.

Because summer yields were significantly reduced this year because of reduced water capability, only a few cuttings were completed when three or four cuttings are the norm. Some fields even sat idle this summer, Hammerich said. Corn stalks that have been worth $15 to $20 now can fetch $120 on the edge of a field, he said.

Some thieves are stripping copper wire off irrigation pivot sprinklers and removing old junk iron lying around property, Hammerich said. Some are even stealing entire sprinklers to get the metal.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates Colorado needs 200 percent of normal precipitation this winter to replenish its groundwater and fill its reservoirs. About eight miles of one large reservoir are barren. “Dust is blowing off what normally would be the bottom of the lake,” he said. Much of its water flows down the Colorado River to California.

More destructive wildfires are expected this next summer, as well, Hammerich said. A large stretch of land from Colorado to Wyoming remains extremely dry, as well as much of the Midwest. Because of a feed shortage, “a lot of cattle and horses are literally starving,” he said, noting many horses have been abandoned.

Col. Mike Grimes, chief agent for the investigative services division of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, said his agency has aggressively investigated livestock thefts, which have been declining, but equipment thefts continue to rise.

“We’ve put a lot of people in jail. They’ve found it’s easier to go steal something else,” Grimes told the Western Livestock Journal. “I think we’re taking some of the thieves off the street.”

While no combines have been stolen, Grimes said tractors, trailers, four-wheelers, loaders, excavators and scrap metal commonly are taken illegally. One father and son were caught defrauding people out of old irrigation pipe.

Grimes does not blame a down economy for the thefts. “Most of the time it’s tied to drugs—stealing so they can get drugs.” Noting he has spent 49 years in law enforcement, Grimes said: “I don’t know anyone who works any harder and gets paid less than the farm and ranching community. I really take offense at people stealing from them.”

Grimes has not noticed reports of hay thefts this year, but there have been hay fraud incidents. Spring rains in Oklahoma helped increase hay production unlike the previous year. When purchasing hay, especially from out of state, farmers and ranchers must make sure they sign contracts stipulating pay on delivery, not before, Grimes advised.

“They may not get the hay, but at least they won’t lose their money,” he said, warning ranchers and farmers to beware of fraudulent schemes. They can no longer do business based on handshakes and verbal promises, he stressed.

While spring rainfall was good and the summer was not as hot, autumn precipitation fell off in Oklahoma.

Despite residual moisture, “all ponds are starting to dry up. The moisture we’re getting is not enough to run into ponds. Even major lakes are low. We will take moisture in any shape or form right now,” Grimes said.

While there were reports last year of abandoned animals, many cattle wandered off in search of pasture and water. This year they are wandering off looking for water, he said, mentioning his agency has only 10 agents covering all of Oklahoma. He urges ranchers to brand their cattle and record livestock counts.

Bill Hyman, executive director of the Texas Independent Cattlemen’s Association (TICA), said he is not aware of a problem with hay theft in the Lone Star State, but horses and donkeys are being increasingly abandoned by their owners.

“People are just getting tired of buying hay for them,” Hyman said. “A lot of them have them as pets, and there is no market for them. They turn them out, and the county picks them up, advertising them as stray animals. They might bring five dollars at an auction.”

The cost of hay in Texas has gone up 30 percent the last three months, averaging $200 a ton. While the state got rain in the spring and early summer, it since has not had any. The western and southwestern parts of the state are in “horrible” condition. “They have not had any rain. Period,” Hyman said.

Texas produces more cattle than any other state in the union—up to 17 percent. While eastern Texas and Louisiana have healthy amounts of hay, the cost of shipping it to others parts of Texas boosts the expense by up to $50 a ton, Hyman estimated. “It looks like we’re back in drought.”

Virtually all of TICA’s members are cow/calf producers. “Our people are probably running 50 to 60 percent or less the number of cattle than they used to have,” Hyman said. He noted cattle prices remain pretty good, but numbers are significantly down from what they were three years ago.

Many cattle producers have gone out of business or are selling their calves early. It will take another year or two to get pastures back if rains resume. Despite the downturn, 70 percent of Texas ranchers plan to expand their operations the next three years. “Ranchers are the perpetual optimists. We always think it’s going to rain the next week.”

Mark Boone, president of the Montana Cattlemen’s Association, said he has not heard of a problem with hay theft in his state or had firsthand experience with abandoned animals, only rumors.

Alfalfa hay is running at about $200 a ton there.

Virtually all of Montana, especially eastern Montana, has suffered from drought. The state was short on grass this summer, requiring extra hay for livestock operations.

“That obviously takes a lot of the profit out of the picture,” Boone said.

Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers´ Association, said there has been a spike of unwanted and abandoned horses in New Mexico. Some livestock owners reportedly are cutting fences to let their animals stray onto others’ land for grazing. Hay theft, however, does not seem to be a problem in New Mexico.

The problem of stray animals has become so acute that New Mexico’s agriculture director has convened an unwanted horse task force consisting of livestock industry, horse rescue and state agency representatives. — Mark Mendiola, WLJ Correspondent