Cattle rustling on the rise in California

Nov 11, 2013

Cattle rustling brings to mind scenes from the Old West when ranchers with six-guns blazing had to protect their herds from marauding bandits who would cause livestock stampedes on open ranges.

Modern cattle thieves are much more sophisticated, stealing expensive livestock more and more throughout the West and Midwest as a widespread drought decimates American herds, beef prices climb and the national economy struggles.

Justin Oldfield, government relations vice president for the California Cattlemen’s Association, notes cattle herds nationwide are at their lowest numbers since 1953. Cattle rustling always has been a problem for the livestock industry, he says, adding he has seen an increase in such incidents. California has about three million head of cattle.

Usually, cattle thieves are criminals within the industry who have the ability and experience to load cattle onto trucks and trailers, and haul them off for sale elsewhere. In other words, it’s “an inside job,” Oldfield told the Western Livestock Journal.

“People caught and convicted of cattle rustling are not serving the time they should,” Oldfield said, expressing frustration with California’s lenient approach to punishing cattle thieves and other law violators.

It‘s unacceptable for repeat offenders and hardened criminals to be turned loose onto the streets, he said. “Make people get the punishment they deserve and spend time in jail. … Look for every opportunity to punish them, especially those in our business who do damage to other ranchers.”

The California Legislature this year enacted a law for cattle rustlers to be jailed, fined or both, with assessed revenues designated for the state’s brand inspection department. Cattle producers are required to brand their cattle in the state to prevent thefts.

While California is a “brand state,” many states farther east do not require branded cattle. In Texas, that is done county by county. Half of Nebraska requires branding while the other half doesn’t. In Kansas, no branding is required, Oldfield said.

Greg Lawley, chief of the California Department of Food & Agriculture’s livestock identification bureau, said from 2012 to 2013 the state has seen reports of missing or stolen cattle go up by 255 from 1,062 to 1,317 head, a 22 percent increase.

“It has increased. No doubt about it,” he said, noting many cattle now are worth more than $1,000 each. Unbranded cattle can fetch 100 percent of value for thieves. “Most of the time it’s someone within the infrastructure who understands it and are doing the cattle theft. They have to have the wherewithal to load animals out of corral or pasture, a way of gathering them. Someone with an urban background is not going to be able to steal cattle.”

Often the perpetrators are employees, friends of employees or ex-employees who carefully observe ranchers to learn when and where they feed their cattle, Lawley told the WLJ, stressing the need for ranchers to brand their cattle and lock their gates. “If the cattle are unbranded, they can market those cattle pretty easily.”

Lawley partially blames the increased cattle thefts on “a lot of people out of work” tempted by an increase in the price of beef and dairy cattle. His department has been cooperating with law enforcement, brand inspectors and the California Cattlemen’s Association to thwart the rustling, sending out weekly bulletins.

California Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed a bill to increase the penalty for cattle theft to $5,000, effective Jan. 1. Last year, the state succeeded in returning nearly 1,650 missing head of cattle worth $1.4 million to their owners. California officials also worked with their Nevada counterparts to stop and inspect all vehicles carrying livestock on Interstate 80.

Lawley urged ranchers who think cattle may have been stolen to contact state officials immediately. “The longer the wait, the colder the trail,” he said.

Michael Kelsey, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, told WLJ the increased value of cattle and a relentless drought have driven the spike in cattle thefts in Oklahoma and other states. In the past five years, most of the nation’s land where cattle are run has been drought-stricken, he said.

“Cattle prices are extremely strong. That’s one of the major factors I believe is driving a lot of this theft. Retail beef prices are as high as as they’ve ever been, reaching all-time highs for consumers,” Kelsey said, adding input costs also are very high for operations.

“We’re probably at levels in terms of mama cows we have not seen since the 1950s. The national herd is the smallest in a good many years.”

Cattle thieves are getting smarter, using social media and taking advantage of their regular schedules. “We do things to make our work convenient for us. In the process, we make it convenient for thieves,” Kelsey said, citing corrals and loading chutes close to roads, and cattle guards instead of locked gates.

“We’re seeing various and sundry things, anywhere from small loads to large loads. The largest was 99 head. Most of the time they want to convert to cash pretty quick. Most thieves are pretty smart.”

Kelsey recommends all ranchers register and brand their cattle quickly because branding is one of the most effective means of identification, but he concedes it may not be as popular as it has been in the past.

In 2012, more than 10,400 head of cattle and horses were reported missing or stolen to the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, a 36 percent increase from 2010.

New Mexico’s cattle rustling has been curtailed by the state’s livestock board, which has more than 100 livestock inspectors and certified peace officers throughout the state to monitor and patrol on the ground.

“Other states do not have certified inspectors to handle livestock issues,” said Ray Baca, executive director of the New Mexico Livestock Board. “Our whole main objective is cattle rustling, anything to do with the cattle.”

Troy Patterson, the board’s southwestern area supervisor, is investigating the disappearance of 30 head in the last two years, including 15 unaccounted adult cows within the last six months.

“There’s not a lot for us to go on,” Patterson said, noting shipping pens were located out of view of a road. “Cattle are a pretty easy target sometimes. Thieves get away with it. It’s a pretty nice payoff.”

Cruelty cases have been more of a problem than larceny cases in New Mexico, Patterson said. Most stolen cattle are not branded, he added, mentioning dairy cow thefts are increasing because most dairy cows do not have brands, which are an effective deterrent to rustling. — Mark Mendiola, WLJ correspondent