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Rustling costs ranchers millions in poor economy

By JIM SUHR, AP Business Writer

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Even with cattle theft rampant in much of the nation’s midsection, Oklahoma rancher Ryan Payne wasn’t worried about anyone messing with his cows and calves. By his estimation, his pasture is so far off the beaten path “you need a helicopter to see it.”

Branding a cowThat changed last month when Payne, 37, checked on his livestock and found a ghoulish scene: Piles of entrails from two Black angus calves he says thieves gutted “like they were deer.” They made off with the meat and another 400-pound calf in a heist he estimated cost him $1,800.

“Gosh, times are tough, and maybe people are truly starving and just need the meat,” he said. “But it’s shocking. I can’t believe people can stoop that low.”

While the brazenness may be unusual, the theft isn’t. High beef prices have made cattle attractive as a quick score for people struggling in the sluggish economy, and other livestock are being taken too. Six thousand lambs were stolen from a feedlot in Texas, and nearly 1,000 hogs have been stolen in recent weeks from farms in Iowa and Minnesota. The thefts add up to millions of dollars in losses for U.S. ranches.

Authorities say today’s thieves are sophisticated compared to the horseback bandits of the rugged Old West. They pull up livestock trailers in the middle of the night and know how to coax the animals inside. Investigators suspect it’s then a quick trip across state lines to sell the animals at auction barns.

“It almost has to be someone who knows about the business, including just knowing where to take the cattle,” said Carmen Fenton, a spokeswoman for the 15,000-member Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, formed in the 1870s specifically to combat cattle rustlers. “It’s crazy to think we’re still in business.”

There’s no clearinghouse that tracks thefts nationally, but statistics among certain states are staggering. In Texas — the nation’s biggest cattle producer — and to a lesser extent Oklahoma, some 4,500 cattle have been reported missing or stolen this year, according to Fenton’s group. The association’s special rangers managed to recover or account for $4.8 million in stolen ranch property each of the previous two years, most of it steers, bulls, cows and calves.

Such thefts also are happening in places once spared. In southwestern Missouri’s Jasper County, not far from a regional stockyard, about 100 of the nearly 180 head of cattle stolen this year were snatched during a recent six-week stretch, sheriff’s Lt. Ron Thomas said.

Branding a cow“Occasionally one or two have gotten stolen (over the years), but not this many in such a short time. They’ve gotten us big time,” he said, figuring the stolen livestock have been whisked off to another state. “These guys are not your typical fly-by-night, let’s-steal-a-cow kinda people. They know exactly what they’re doing. They’re pretty slick, and they’re bold.”

Investigators have found clues to be elusive, partly because thieves often artfully conceal their crimes by replacing pasture fences they’ve cut to get to the animals, Thomas said. Ranchers unaccustomed to counting their cattle each day may not realize any are missing for a week or more, and by then, any tire tracks or other evidence — perhaps even DNA or fingerprints from a soda or beer can discarded by the bandit — may be gone.

The other problem is that while brands are widely used in the West, three states hard hit by livestock thefts — Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas — don’t require them. That’s hampered investigators’ efforts to match recovered cattle to owners or to relay to stockyards markings to watch for when strangers haul in livestock to be sold.

Without brands, “ranchers could tell me their missing cow is brown and white, but goodness gracious, go down the road and you’ll see thousands,” Thomas said.

While a voluntary national livestock identification system exists, few ranchers and farmers participate in it and those who do fear that the rustlers will simply cut off the ID tag in seconds.

“Unfortunately, cattle don’t have a serial number that goes with them or some type of permanent ID” short of branding, said Jim Fraley, an Illinois Farm Bureau livestock specialist. “Thieves look at it as an opportunity and can market the cattle under their name. It’s a fairly easy thing to do.” Hot iron branding is the only proven method of ID that is permanent. Hide brands can not be removed or changed like electronic pens or ear tags.

In Ohio and Pennsylvania a single cattle rustler stole over $400,000 cattle. He was wise in never acquiring a single animal with a hot iron brand. Those stolen with ear marks or tags were quickly removed, therefore leaving no ID for law enforcement to track. The lack of hide brands invites a new breed of cattle rustler.

Owners’ vigilance has paid off in some cases. A Colorado rancher who was hunting prairie dogs spotted one of his branded, missing cows on another man’s property. Deputies swooped in and found 36 cows and 31 calves worth $68,000 and belonging to nine different people.

An Alabama rancher reported a couple of his cattle missing, and then two more were stolen the next night, Chilton County Sheriff Kevin Davis said. Sheriff’s investigators installed cameras on the property but got nothing before pulling them days later.

Not long after, the farmer called because he spotted two men with a pickup truck and what turned out to be a stolen trailer on his land. Deputies arrested the men and found five of the six missing cows — half of them pregnant — at various locations. The sixth animal already had been slaughtered.

Davis credited luck and the rancher’s “heightened alert” for snaring the two suspects.

“The boldness is the thing — for them to come back three different times to the same pasture,” he said. “Obviously, they didn’t feel very threatened about being caught. But I’ve never given criminals credit for having high intelligence.”

And they’re not finicky. An Ohio woman has been charged with taking $110,000 worth of frozen bull semen — which can valuable to breeders in even small amounts — from a liquid-nitrogen tank at a Moorefield Township genetics company where she once worked.

Nor are all the thefts big. Someone recently made off with two horses — ages 16 and 7 — from a home near Hanover in northeastern Illinois’ Jo Daviess County.

Back in Oklahoma, Payne replaced old wire gates on his ranch near Chelsea, with “big, old heavy-duty steel ones,” hoping to safeguard his other cows.

“That’s about all I can do,” he said. “Like everyone says, it never happens to me. I guess that’s wrong.”

The Denver Post

As USDA turns to ear tags over brands, cattle ranchers fear end of tradition

Ordway rancher John Reid holds some of the irons he uses to brand livestock on his ranch, the Reid Cattle Co. The USDA is expected to release new interstate rules requiring individual cattle to be identified by a number stamped on an ear tag. (Aaron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post )

The future of the hot-iron brand, an icon of Western heritage, is at the center of a nearly decade-long battle over cattle identification and traceability.

“It’s the latest hot lightning rod,” said John Reid, an Ordway rancher who is past president of the Colorado Independent Cattle Growers Association.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected soon to release a draft of new regulations, which will remove the hot-iron brand from its list of official identification for cattle sold or shipped across state lines.

The new rules will require each animal to be identified by a number stamped on a removable ear tag.

States would still be able to use brands as official IDs within their boundaries.

Individual agreements between states can be reached to allow brands as official IDs for interstate movement — more complications.

Critics fear this is the beginning of the end for America’s centuries-old branding tradition.

“The federal government’s action sends a signal to the entire industry that the ear tag is a superior means of identification,” said Bill Bullard, chief executive of the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund.

Ranchers argue that ear tags can fall off or be stolen by thieves, so are not a good form of official ID.

State brand commissioner Rick Wahlert said nothing will change for the state’s cattle producers.

However, the new system is a critical element of participation in the interstate beef market, he said.

Negative reaction to the new rules, he said, “is really about change, and a fear of the government being in your business.”

Gerald Schreiber, a third-generation rancher in northeastern Colorado, already uses ear tags for identification within the herd but bristles at the new regulations.

“It sounds good on the surface, but anytime you get the Big Brother approach, I don’t trust it,” he said. “The brand has worked for 1000 years, I don’t know why they want to disregard it. In the West, branding is more than just a tradition; it’s our identity as ranches.”

First proposed in 2002, the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) was rolled out in 2004, but flatly rejected in USDA listening sessions by over 90% of the cattle producers.

Producers across the country are skeptical about the new program, which would require radio-frequency ear tags that would let cattle be tracked from slaughterhouse to birth.

Their concerns ranged from potential costs to confidentiality of information, including fears that animal-rights advocates would be able to gain information on ranchers through the use of the federal Freedom of Information Act.

“It got pretty ugly,” said Ordway rancher Reid.

From 2004 to 2009, the USDA spent $142 million on NAIS, according to a Congressional Research Service report to Congress. Because it was a voluntary program, less than 30 percent of cattle producers participated.

In February 2010, the USDA announced it was abandoning NAIS due to mass rejection by livestock producers. Now a new name and a new program has evolved called Animal Disease Traceability.

Loss of tradition

The draft of the proposed USDA rule was due in April but has been delayed. It is now expected to be released within weeks, followed by a 60- to 90-day period of public comment. It will take an additional 12 to 15 months before the final rule is released.

“Americans want two things,” Rohr said. “They want to know their food is safe, and they have an interest in knowing where their food comes from.”

Still, the plan to remove the hot-iron brand as an official method of ID across state lines has angered Westerners, who worry about a loss of tradition and the addition of more red tape to their businesses.

“The piece of the deal that is awfully hard for producers to understand is that most disease comes from meat processing plants more than individual cattle or cattle herds.” Reid said.

The brand is the oldest and more permanent form of herd identification, while ear tags, with their unique numbers, can easily fall off in brush and trucks where cattle frequent.

“So the question is,” said Reid, “do we need individual ID or is herd ID enough?”

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