Put A Brand On It

Cattle Theft Numbers Continue to Climb

Victoria G Myers
By  Victoria G. Myers , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Branded cattle are more difficult for thieves to sell and are often recovered by law enforcement. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by James Pratt)

After an eight-hour manhunt, Bradley Wayne Guthrey climbed out of a patch of Texas woods, hands held high. He had led officers on a high-speed chase from the Panola Livestock Co. auction yard in Carthage, to a rural area in the eastern part of the state where he abandoned his truck and took off on foot.

Leading up to his capture, Guthrey had taken 70 head of cattle from various Texas and Arkansas beef operations. He loaded eight of them into a stolen trailer and dropped them off for sale at Panola. Guthrey was about to learn Texas is probably one of the worst places in the world to try to sell stolen cattle.

Certain things didn't seem right from the start to auction manager Petie Stegall. He wondered why someone would drive from central Arkansas to Carthage, more than 250 miles, to sell eight head of cattle. Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA) market inspector Pat McGuigan Jr. and special ranger Larry Hand arrived on the scene and noted the cattle were not marked, and the stock trailer had been stolen. While they were on site with Panola constable Bryan Murff, Guthrey was seen by barn employees. He sped out, beginning a manhunt that would bring together officers from two states and more than five counties.

BOLDER THIEVES

Unfortunately, record-level cattle prices prove enticing to criminals such as Guthrey. TSCRA executive director of law enforcement Larry Gray said cattle theft is on the rise. Sadly, these thefts often target those producers who can least afford the loss.

"Many times victims are small operators," Gray explained. "Thieves target unbranded cattle, often mom-and-pop operators. They love absentee owners and those with 50 head or less. Usually, smaller herds are gentle, easily penned. You shake a feed sack at them, and they'll follow you just about anywhere.

"What's sad is often these owners are older couples who have built their cow herd up as a 401(k) of sorts. When someone comes in and takes 10 to 12 cows or calves from that kind of operation, it's a huge, often unrecoverable loss."

How Guthrey and partner in crime Levi Boyd chose the cattle they stole is a primer that can help producers everywhere protect their own operations. Gray explained: "They targeted unbranded cattle. When they did steal a set of branded cattle, it was because they took them at night, and they didn't realize they were branded."

Those 14 branded cattle would be more difficult to sell, so Gray said they were mixed with Boyd's grandfather's cow herd in Camden, Ark. It was thanks to their identification that they were recovered and returned to owners.

INSPECTORS PREVENT CRIME

State brand or market inspectors are often the ones who tip authorities off that some suspect animals have shown up for sale at an auction site. Gray said a majority of states do not have market inspectors at sale stations, making it much easier to pass off stolen cattle.

States that have market inspectors, in addition to Texas, include: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

"Many producers say they don't want market inspectors in their state," Gray said. "There is a fee charged for this, and it's been hard to convince people to pass legislation for market or brand inspections. Many producers just don't want to have any part of it."

Recovery of a couple of head of stolen cattle could easily cover fees, which are just 85 cents per head. Gray said he believes incidences of cattle theft are growing across the country, a trend tied both to market prices and to local economies.

"That said, there are certain individuals who are just career thieves, and this is how they make a living," he added.

Most are too smart to take a load of just-stolen calves to the nearest auction and try to sell them. They will often hold cattle and commingle them with others they've stolen, so the numbers and colors won't match up to reports.

DETERRENTS THAT WORK

Gray said there are a number of things producers, the cattle industry and the legal system can do to help deter would-be thieves.

-- Enact stronger laws. In Texas, it's a third-degree felony to steal one or more head of cattle, making it an automatic two- to 10-year sentence if convicted. The judge can bump the crime to a second- or even first-degree felony. In some states, cattle theft is a misdemeanor.

-- Don't wean calves close to the road. Limit visibility whenever possible. Cow/calf producers who pen a set of steers and heifers near a road make these young, prized animals an attractive and easy-to-gather target.

-- Brand, brand, brand. Permanent branding will dissuade thieves from taking cattle. Don't think ear tags will help the authorities identify stolen animals. Gray said those are the first things the thieves cut off. In Texas, where brands are registered, Gray said 75% of branded stolen cattle are recovered. In 2014, 5,790 head of livestock (which includes both cattle and horses) were reported missing or stolen in Texas; 4,243 head were recovered.

-- Count cattle. It's important to know exactly how many cattle you have. A call to authorities reporting a few cattle missing, with no timeline on how long they may have been gone, is an awfully cold trail.

-- Keep gates locked. Even though chains or locks can be cut, this is at least a way to know for sure that your property has been attacked so you can contact authorities.

-- Consider video surveillance. A lot of new video surveillance equipment on the market today is surprisingly affordable and will even alert your cell phone when the camera is tripped. Gray said a simple system starts around $300.

-- Don't feed in pens. This makes it easy for your cattle to be loaded and stolen.

-- Vary routines. Don't do the same thing every day at the same time. Vary the times you go to feed or move cattle.

-- Put trailers out of sight. Livestock thieves often transport stolen animals in a stolen trailer. Keeping trailers out of sight and locked are deterrents.

-- Neighborhood Watch works. Even in a rural area, it's important to get to know your neighbors and let them know you. Exchange contact information, and keep an eye on each other's property. Be willing to take the time to call that neighbor when something seems out of the ordinary.

Editor's Note: The long, dangerous pursuit and capture of Bradley Wayne Guthrey, and negotiations by TSCRA ranger Larry Hand, are detailed in a report on the case by Carol Hutchinson in TSCRA's The Cattleman (www.texascattleraisers.org). TSCRA is a member of the International Livestock Identification Association (www.internationallivestockid.com), an affiliation that has helped TSCRA recover property and find suspects as far away as Alberta, Canada.

(VM/CZ)

Victoria Myers