High beef prices creates cattle theft

Ranchers guard against cattle theft during calving season
Oregon Dept. of Agriculture

Cattle ranchers in Oregon are asked to keep an eye out this time of year for a crime that has been around since the days of the old west. Cattle rustling, or livestock theft in general, is very much a 21st century crime that may be tempting to potential perpetrators during calving season, especially with the relatively high price of beef right now.

“The overall economy has improved some, but some people are still desperate,” says Rodger Huffman, state brand inspector with the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s Animal Health and Identification Division. “The value of cattle has increased incrementally as well. Certainly, that might increase the temptation to steal someone’s livestock.”

Increased awareness could help prevent cattle theft. But right now, the focus for most cattle producers is on making sure the current calf crop being born is healthy. The competing challenge is the opportunity for someone to find and take these same animals.

“Young calves can be easy prey and easily captured this time of year to begin with,” says Huffman, who assists with local law enforcement agencies dealing with livestock theft. “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 technology allowed the buyer and seller to get together even more quickly.”

The sale of stolen animals can take place on the internet in just a couple of hours. Theft investigators have a difficult time when transactions take place so quickly and animals can be transported great distances in a relatively short period of time. Times have changed from the days when the public auction yard was one of the only ways to sell and buy livestock. ODA brand inspectors still verify proof of ownership before the animals can be sold at the auction yard. But if ODA is unaware of transactions to begin with, it’s hard to catch a thief.

That’s why prevention of cattle theft is more important than ever.

“This is prime time for baby calves to be stolen,” says Huffman. “Producers need to be aware of where their cattle are calving and be careful not to leave cattle in an area easily accessible by strangers or someone driving by. Ranchers should be out with their animals more often and take steps to limit access to the cattle.”

Keeping animals close to the house, if possible, may be helpful. An additional challenge this year in Eastern Oregon is the relatively light snowpack following last year’s exceptional grass growth. It’s likely that many cattle have wintered out this year because of their ability to find food while grazing on their own. Some ranchers haven’t located all their cattle yet, but those animals are not necessarily stolen. Still, the concern over cattle theft is higher than normal whenever animals are missing.

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.

Any loss of cattle and calves should be reported immediately to law enforcement officials.

There is also advice for buyers of cattle that is important all year long.

“People buying animals 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.”

If buyers are not comfortable that cattle for sale are from legitimate sources, they need to report it to law enforcement officials.

There is even a role for some early season hunters who may be finding themselves face-to-face with cattle in certain parts of the state.

“If they see cattle where they normally wouldn’t be this time of year, they should report it to local law enforcement,” says Huffman.

Hopefully, an ounce of prevention by ranchers acting to thwart cattle thieves will be worth a pound of cure- or perhaps several hundred pounds of cure, depending on the size of the calf or steer.

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

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