Skilled cattle thieves in MO

Feb 1, 2013

A story akin to the old western tales of cattle rustlers is playing out in Missouri. Apparently, traitorous cowboys are turning on their fellow cattlemen and using their ranching skills for the dark side, stealing the best calves out from under their owners’ noses. The thefts have cattlemen asking when they can bring out the big guns… literally.

In the last few weeks of January, highly-skilled cattle thieves, who are obviously intimately familiar with cattle handling and sorting, have struck several Missouri cattle operations. According to the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office, 35 head of commercial cattle have been stolen since Jan. 22.

“I absolutely guarantee these guys are cowboys,” said Jim McCann, president-elect of the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association (MCA), and rancher of Shining Cross Cattle Co. Mc- Cann has been active in a number of producer groups trying to mobilize cattlemen and law enforcement attention to the issue.

In speaking with WLJ, McCann described in detail the nature of the cattle stolen. Targeted cattle range between 450-800 pounds, are predominantly steers, though some heifers, too, and are mostly all weaned. Additionally, not all such calves in the theft-struck herds are taken; it is only the best and most valuable calves which are stolen. He agreed with the observation that the situation sounds like the thieves are looking for the easiest, least laborintensive return on their “efforts.”

According to reports, these thieves scope out the location well in advance and have a system in place for how they operate. Such things as flags and colored tape marking ideal places to bring in a trailer have been reported on properties. Fences have been cut and trailers are hauled in— sometimes across a number of fields—to reach the targeted cattle.

Cattle are fed and sorted in the dark and then the best are siphoned off and taken away. McCann said the thefts—which have been going on since 2005, but have noticeably increased lately—occur more when there’s light out.

“Most of it happens on moonlit nights. When we have a full moon, it’s the worst, but that’s not to say it doesn’t happen in the total dark. I swear these guys must be part cat.”

McCann said the motivation is certainly the relatively easy money. He pointed out a good calf of the type being stolen can easily bring $1,000/head. And citing a recent theft where a rancher lost 25 calves, he said, “that’s just $25,000 that went down the road for maybe four to six hours of work. That’s a pretty good return, I’d say.”

When asked about the possible nature of the thieves—specifically, who they are and how many of them there might be—Mc- Cann said there was no way to know until they are caught. But he was willing to speculate on how many individuals would be needed for the sort of work these thieves are doing and the time in which it is estimated to take.

“You could probably do it with three or four guys pretty easily,” he said. He also mentioned the likely use of “good cattle dogs” and possibly some horses as well.

The matter of what to do about the situation is harder to pin down given the skill and sophistication of the thefts. The issue is complicated by the fact Missouri is a non-brand state, making permanent identification of the stolen animals very difficult. Ear tags can easily be removed and the stolen cattle in the past have not shown up at local sales. It is thought they are being mixed into backgrounding herds and from there sent to feedlots directly.

“I don’t have a magic answer,” said McCann, about what cattlemen can do to protect themselves. “It doesn’t seem like locking the gates help. The best thing is vigilance.”

The problem is more than just localized to the victims of the theft, too.

“Let’s consider the guy who lost 27 head,” McCann explained. “He estimated he lost $30,000. That money wasn’t just taken from him. It was taken out of that community’s economy because that money would have gone back into the community.”

In response to the upswing of the thefts, MCA has been holding meetings with producers across the state. Lawrence County Sheriff Brad Delay has been active in these meetings as his county has been hit hard by the thefts.

While McCann acknowledged and voiced gratitude for the efforts of producers and law enforcement, he also had some frustration over the reaction of the community. He pointed out that if there was a bank-robbing ring going on in some of these areas which have had the thefts, the local citizens would be up in arms. “But we’re not getting that result when it’s cattle,” he said, disappointed.

He did have an amusing, if somewhat dark, anecdote about a meeting he’d attended regarding what cattlemen could do to protect their property.

“I was sitting next to the sheriff [Delay] and I told him ‘if I give you a call and say I caught some rustlers, you’re going to need to bring the coroner, because he’d be the next guy I’d call.’ And I got about 25 ‘amens’ from behind me.”

Based on what has been observed on and around properties where thefts occurred, cattlemen should be vigilant for colorful tape or other attention-grabbing markers on fences, new locks on gates, and strangers taking photos of their fields and fences or their neighbors’ fields and fences. Patrolling property or visiting pens or corrals close to roads to check for signs of visitors would be beneficial.

MCA is recommending cattlemen in the area try to record identification numbers or defining features of any unknown trailer seen at night. There are also several rewards being offered in the effort of catching anyone associated with the thieving ring. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor