The Norman Transcript

March 2, 2014

Hay and cattle theft on the rise

The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — The drought began fall of 2010 and still rages today in southwest Oklahoma. This situation has caused hay to be in short supply for those who still have cattle and caused some criminals to pull bold moves such as stealing hay and even the cattle eating it. In fact, in response to the rise of hay theft, sheriffs in some counties began installing GPS tracking devices in round bales of hay designed to send a text message to the sheriff when moved. This operation has yielded numerous hay thieves caught in the act since these ingenious devices have been deployed.

While hay prices were up in 2011 and 2012 across much of Oklahoma, these prices have regulated themselves after good rains fell last summer across central and eastern Oklahoma. However, while hay prices have gone down in some areas, beef is a different story. In fact, red meat is taking on more of a gold color these days as cattle prices are at all-time highs and climbing.

This is a great time to sell cattle for those ranchers who are still lucky enough to have them after years of drought in many parts of our state. While ranchers are making big money off their bovines a darker side to this price trend is higher rates of cattle theft. The risk versus reward consideration is becoming more contemplated every day as beef prices continue to soar.

Record beef prices are one reason more thieves are trespassing on private property and stealing cattle. Some point to criminals feeding drug addictions while other point to the rise in hobby ranches as another possible reason. Many of these ranches are owned by urban professionals or absentee landowners who visit the property infrequently. This leaves cattle less supervised and easier to steal.

Another factor that makes cattle theft easier these days, especially in dry western Oklahoma, is that cattle grazing on abused, dried-up pasture are hungry. During drought, cattle grazing on abused pastures are more easily coaxed into pens and trailers because they are hungry.

One other reason for the uptick in theft is the economy and rising costs. The slow economic recovery hasn’t yet come to some areas of rural Oklahoma leaving some willing to accept the high risk of cattle theft, regardless of the stiff penalties currently in place.

This is again due to the fact that high cattle prices make even a handful of used-up cows worth tens of thousands of dollars. The potential payoff has increased the number of cattle thefts in Oklahoma to a record high during a time when herd sizes are at all times lows.

While overall numbers are down, Oklahoma was one of a few states on January 1 showing the clearest signs of beef cow herd rebuilding. The Oklahoma beef cow herd was up 51,000 head (2.9 percent year over year), second only to Kansas and Missouri in the absolute increase in cow numbers. The Oklahoma inventory of beef replacement heifers was up 45,000 head (16.1 percent year over year), the largest increase in beef replacement heifers among all states. Still, this increase in beef cow numbers is only a beginning. Oklahoma’s beef cow herd is still down 10.5 percent from January 1, 2011, in the big picture meaning some ranchers don’t have many more cows for thieves to steal if any at all.

In light of this, many ranchers are paying closer attention to their herd numbers these days to prevent theft. All in all, we know the rebuilding process has a long way to go yet even as such, cattle theft doesn’t show any signs of slowing down as most experts believe prices will continue to rise sharply.

The high numbers of cattle thefts are being intensely investigated by agents with local law enforcement and with the Investigative Services Unit of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry.

The Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association also assists with cattle theft cases and many are under investigation at this time. Cattle that have been branded or equipped with microchips have a higher rate of positive identification and recovery and many are found when criminals attempt to sell cattle at auction or to an individual. Hidden infrared digital surveillance cameras with both video and photo mode are being widely used near gate entrances and cattle lots to curtail theft as well. 

Should you have information related to livestock theft, contact the local sheriff or the ODAFF Investigative Services at 522-6102 or visit Oklahoma Cooperative Extension and Oklahoma State University offer their programs to all eligible persons regardless of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, disability, or status as a veteran and are Equal Opportunity Employers.

Heath Herje is an agriculture educator with Cleveland County Cooperative Extension service.

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