Livestock theft now goes online

Livestock theft concerns rise during calving season
— The internet gives rise to would-be rustlers
By Oregon Department of Agriculture,

A crime that has been around since the days of the old west has evolved with modern technology. Cattle rustling, or livestock theft in general, is still a major concern of Oregon ranchers for several reasons. Right now, it’s calving season, prices paid for beef cattle are relatively high, a struggling economy has created more would-be thieves, and the internet has provided a new avenue for selling stolen animals.

The combination is cause for concern in the cattle industry and with the Oregon Department of Agriculture, which gets involved in livestock theft through its Livestock Identification Program.

“Young calves can be easy prey and easily captured this time of year to begin with,” says Rodger Huffman, state brand inspector with ODA’s Animal Health and Identification Division. “The amount they are worth on the open market now has greatly increased. So, when you combine those two factors, it makes us want to be a little more aware of what is going on.”

As cattle are turned out to pasture, calves are often alone for a short time by their mother while she searches for food and water. They may appear abandoned, even if they aren’t. In other cases, their young age prevents them from being able to outrun people or predators. Calving season has always left a rancher vulnerable to theft, but now there’s a new and growing accessible market for stolen animals.

“Many times throughout my career, I’ve seen beef animals taken by someone,” says Huffman. “The opportunity was there and the thieves were able to transport the animals to a public sale, maybe halfway across the state where there was an easy, quick market. But that was before the internet. Technology is now allowing the buyer and seller to get together even more quickly.”

Livestock theft investigators are challenged to know if the sale of stolen animals is even posted on, for instance, an internet site like craigslist. The animals could be sold in a couple of hours and then the advertisement removed from the site.

“We would have to monitor those sites 24 hours a day, seven days a week- and even then we might not catch someone selling stolen cattle,” says Huffman.

A current look at craigslist want ads in Oregon markets shows requests for horses, pigs, and chickens. It’s not a stretch to think someone may be looking for beef calves. Huffman says a person seeing the ad could decide right away to fill the request by stealing calves.

“The temptation is just too great,” says Huffman. “The thieves have a readily available market right there on the internet. They can steal the animals overnight, call up the person who placed the ad, and deliver the calves in a matter of hours.”

Other online sites and electronic communication, including e-mail, can create the same conditions that lead to livestock theft. It’s quite different than the public auction yard where ODA brand inspectors verify proof of ownership before the animals can be sold.

A new born calf today is worth as much as a 300 pound steer was three years ago. The potential value of these calves is high and there is great interest from buyers who grow them from newborns. The people who steal the calves turn them over quickly. They are not keeping or growing them.

The buyers are most likely an unsuspecting party to the theft. But they can play a huge role in tracking down the crime. Local law enforcement and ODA stress the need for proof of ownership during transactions.

“People buying animals through these new media need to have documented proof of ownership from the sellers so that the animals can be traced if we suspect they were stolen,” says Huffman. “At the very least, buyers should get a bill of sale on very young calves that includes a name, address, and phone number. If an ODA brand inspector asks for proof of ownership, you will at least have something we can go back and validate.”

There is also advice to cattle producers on preventing theft.

“Try to keep the animals close to the house,” says Huffman. “Having them close to a road, especially out of sight of a farm house, is very risky. Feed the animals away from the road so these cows and calves are not easily accessed by someone who can get them quickly, throw them into the trunk of a car, and take them to a sale or possibly sell them quickly on the internet.”

Marking livestock with some kind of recognizable identification is another good idea. For mature animals, brands provide a cattle’s return address. In a court of law, the brand is used as proof of ownership. Brands are not mandatory in Oregon, but state law does require that all cattle, both branded and unbranded, be inspected before leaving the state, before being sold at an auction, before being taken to a slaughterhouse, and when change of ownership occurs. But young calves are not given the hot branding iron until they are 60 to 90 days old. They are the ones most vulnerable right now, says Huffman.

“Those calves should be marked in some way right after they are born. It could be a notch or hole in the ear where a tag might be placed- something so that the brand inspection system at public sales can catch and positively identify the rightful owner of the cattle.”

These steps help when livestock goes to one of Oregon’s nine public auction markets. But there is now more opportunity for one-on-one transactions over the internet, which is why prevention education is important.

“There isn’t enough manpower to police the internet,” says Huffman. “There is no law requiring inspection of calves 30 days of age or younger like there is for adult animals.”

If someone offers a young beef calf fairly cheap, be suspicious, get the information, and contact ODA or local law enforcement.

For more information, contact Rodger Huffman at (541) 562-9169.

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