Authorities investigate rise in cattle theft
John Suther of the CDFA Bureau of Livestock Identification, Eric Fennell of the Kern County Sheriff's Department Rural Crime Investigation Unit and Danny Ritchea of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department discuss incidences of missing cattle reported across the state.
Fences, brands and ear tags do not seem to deter some modern-day cattle rustlers. In fact, in the last six months the state has seen close to a 40-percent increase in missing cattle over the same period of time from 2006. The widespread problem of cattle rustling has been reported from as far as Modoc County in the north, to San Bernardino County in the south, and many counties in between.
"This has been devastating for us. We've lost small cattle and large cattle," said San Luis Obispo County rancher John Lacey, a cattle theft victim. "It has been one of those frustrating things and we need to get on it. I wouldn't leave any stone unturned."
Lacey is one of about 50 people that included cattle producers and members of law enforcement who attended a meeting in Coalinga to address the problem of missing cattle and to compare notes and brainstorm for solutions. Senior Special Investigator John Suther of the California Department of Food and Agriculture Bureau of Livestock Identification, who investigates cattle thefts and food and agricultural code violations pertaining to cattle, led the meeting.
"We are here to figure out how we can combat the stolen cattle, what we as law enforcement can do and what you as producers can do to help us stop this theft right now before it gets any worse," Suther said. "It is getting pretty bad lately. We have some really big bunches of cattle missing."
Local and state authorities have expressed alarm due to the increased number of cattle reported missing, especially during a time of drought when rangeland is scarce and the cost of feed has increased.
"Over the last three years we've seen a large increase in missing cattle and reported cattle theft. Initially during those periods the value of beef was at an all-time high, but now we're concerned because we are having increases in missing cattle when the amount of feed available has gone down and the price of hay has gone up," said Senior Deputy Eric Fennell of the Kern County Sheriff's Department Rural Crime Investigation Unit. "Why would somebody be taking these when they are going to have to feed them?"
In the last six months, about 760 head of beef cattle worth about $630,000 were reported missing from ranches throughout the state. This is 200 more than was reported last year during the same period of time. Last year's 550 missing cattle were valued at almost $403,000, according to information provided by the Bureau of Livestock Identification.
Reports of missing cattle typically indicate just a few head of livestock are missing. Lately the Bureau of Livestock Identification and county rural crime task force units are receiving reports of 20 and 30 head of cattle missing at a time, Suther said.
"Several years ago the amount of missing cattle was really high. It decreased for awhile, and with us working really closely with local law enforcement, in particular the California Rural Crime Prevention Task Force, the numbers went down quite a bit. This year, we've seen an increase again. For what reason, I don't know," said Suther. "I can't pinpoint why this year seems to be worse than other years."
Something significant about many of the missing cattle reported this year is that a large number of them are branded, Suther said.
"This is really alarming because branded cattle should be a lot harder for thieves to merchandise if all of our safeguards are in place," Suther said. "Through our checks and balances through the brand programs, the brands that are missing are recognizable brands. It would be shocking for somebody else to be selling cattle with those brands on them."
The state's brand registration and inspection program protects cattle owners in California against loss of animals by theft, straying or misappropriation. The branch's program consists of registration of cattle, horse, burro and sheep permanent brands; inspection of cattle for lawful possession prior to movement, sale or slaughter, and recording of the information obtained by such inspections; and assisting local law enforcement with investigations and prosecutions involving cattle theft.
In 2006, the Bureau of Livestock Identification assisted local law enforcement in the arrest of 27 individuals for cattle theft. Through the agency's investigations, 270 head of cattle were returned to their rightful owners.
Law enforcement agencies agreed that incidences of cattle theft typically start with employees.
"The majority of these are caused by somebody that is on the inside. If they are not directly stealing them, they are involved somehow. They are either giving someone information as to where the cattle are or where they aren't," Suther said. "I know you producers don't want to think it is your workers, but the majority of the thieves that we find are employees or relatives or friends of employees."
It is believed that the stolen cattle are being transported out of state.
Many of the thefts happening in Kern County are occurring just north of the Ventura/Los Angeles county line. As a result, Fennell is working closely with brand inspectors and other law enforcement agencies including the California Highway Patrol.
"We are looking for any common denominators. We are following up on leads and all kinds of things to get to the bottom of this," Fennell said.
As director of corporate security for Harris Ranch Inc., Lee Nilmeier protects the company's feedlot, beef plant and farming operations. He reports that only a few cattle have been lost and encourages producers to stay vigilant to protect themselves from theft.
"There are some cattle that have been missing, but I don't know why. It has just been happening," Nilmeier said. "We are all going to have to try and keep a close watch and a good head count."
What to do if cattle are missing
The California Department of Food and Agriculture Bureau of Livestock Identification and county sheriff's rural crime task force deputies ask producers to do the following:
- Count cattle often. Tally the number of cattle when moving them from one field to another. If cattle are missing, take the time to immediately locate them.
- Report missing cattle as soon as you realize the livestock are gone. The sooner information is reported to law enforcement, the more likely investigators are to track down the livestock and any suspects. Reporting crimes may provide investigators with a pattern of behavior that could even connect them to a string of crimes happening in the region.
- Record and report anything suspicious. It is important to keep a pen and paper in your pickup so that you can record anything suspicious happening on the ranch. Write down license plate numbers and descriptions of suspicious vehicles as well as descriptions of suspicious people that you encounter. Do not put yourself in harm's way. Also, know who is on your property at all times.
- Maintain a good relationship with local law enforcement and local brand inspectors. Know who to call to report the crime and report it in a timely manner. Alert law enforcement in adjoining counties if you suspect the cattle were likely shipped out of your county.
To report missing cattle, contact your local brand inspector, local law enforcement or the CDFA Bureau of Livestock Identification at (916) 654-0889.
(Christine Souza is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.