Image: cattle
The return of cattle rustlers comes as the ranching industry is at a low point, beset by widespread drought, rising feed and equipment prices, and falling demand for beef, says Richard Tokach, who runs this family ranch near Mandan, N.D.
By Reporter
updated 4/3/2009 9:56:38 AM ET 2009-04-03T13:56:38

Otto Dwaine Hendricks is a character out of the Old West transplanted to the 21st century, to hear the police tell it.

The Dade County, Mo., Sheriff’s Department says Hendricks is a cattle thief, responsible for making off with tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of hamburgers on the hoof. But deputies say his tools don’t include lassoes or six-shooters.

He wields a checkbook, they say.

Hendricks, 50, bought dozens of head of cattle last November from the Lockwood Livestock Market. By the time the bank flagged the $57,000 check as bad, Hendricks was gone, along with the cows, deputies said.

“He drove up and I walked up to the gate, where he comes down there to me, and he says, ‘Boy! Them calves are A-1, ain’t they?’ And I said I thought they were pretty good,” said Lyle Beasley, whose farm sold Hendricks the cows through the livestock market.

Beasley said he lost $21,000 worth of cattle in the deal, money that he was supposed to be paid by the livestock market out of the $57,000 check. Jerry Study, the market’s owner, said he would make good on Beasley’s part of the deal.

“I know I got ripped,” Study said.

‘Cattle theft is alive and well’
Hendricks is just one of many examples of what law enforcement authorities and cattle industry representatives say is a modern revival of that stock character from old black-and-white Westerns: the cattle rustler.

“Cattle theft is alive and well,” said Hal Dumas, one of more than 20 investigators working across Texas and Oklahoma for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.

Thousands of head of cattle and millions of dollars’ worth of related equipment were stolen last year in the big cattle states of the Midwest and the Southwest, according to a report by the cattle raisers association. More than 6,400 cattle were snatched in Texas and Oklahoma alone, more than 2½ times the number in 2007.

Since the beginning of the year, numerous thefts of cattle have been reported across the country.

Twenty-one heifers were stolen from a pasture in Marion County, Kan. Twelve head of cattle were swiped from a farm in Squires, Mo., by rustlers who simply tore down a fence. Nearly 100 head of cattle were recovered in Alabama early last month in a 15-county undercover stolen property sting.

Authorities have reported thefts of multiple cattle in such far-flung locales as Ocala, Fla.; Tulpehocken Township, Pa.; and Tehama County, Calif.

Shoot to kill in Missouri?
By all accounts, Missouri is ground zero. Ranchers in the state, especially in the southwest corner, are attractive targets because of several factors: The area boasts prime land for lucrative beef cattle, it’s easy to slip the cattle across the border into Kansas or Arkansas, and the state has no law requiring ranchers to brand their herds, making tracking and recovery of stolen cattle much more difficult.

In February, 53 cows valued at more than $50,000 disappeared from the Poca Cala Ranch near Clever in southwest Missouri. According to Christian County sheriff’s deputies:

  • The thieves knew exactly what they were looking for, targeting only Brahma crossbreed cows that are bred to produce rodeo livestock. Not a single bull was taken.
  • They were able to case the farm ahead of time while evading security lights.
  • They managed to pry open at least five gates and spirit the cows away undetected.

As the price of beef has risen since the late 1990s, hitting a retail high of more than $4.50 a pound last August, so has the sophistication of cattle thieves, the cattle raisers association said. Besides exploiting modern surveillance techniques, today’s cattle rustlers often anesthetize cattle with hypodermic darts, bring them down with trained dogs or herd their quarry with helicopters.

That’s why some Missouri lawmakers are trying to revive another artifact of the Old West, arguing that today’s ranchers need more firepower to respond.

Acknowledging that they’re reacting to the recent wave of cattle rustlings, 17 House members introduced the Missouri Right to Protection Act in February, which would allow property owners to shoot to kill anyone threatening them or their property. Current law allows such a response only inside the home or an automobile but not out of doors — where the cattle and the thieves are.

If passed, the bill would “make it more difficult for someone to come here and very quickly load cattle,” said Sally Angell, a member of the Missouri Beef Industry Council.

Ranchers already under pressure
Ranchers say times are tough enough already.

The Agriculture Department estimated the U.S. beef cow herd at 31.7 million head in January, down by 2.4 percent from a year earlier. Meanwhile, U.S. consumer demand for beef fell by 4 percent in 2008, according to researchers at Kansas State University, who reported that retail beef prices in February fell by about 15 cents a pound over the previous six months.

The researchers, led by James Mintert, an agricultural economist with the university’s extension service, cited bad publicity over the rise of beef recalls for safety reasons in 2008 — when 38 recalls more than doubled the number in 2007 — in addition to more than 20 years of reports linking consumption of red meat to health problems.

But ranchers are hurting for other reasons, too. Drought conditions reigned over many cattle-raising areas of the Southwest last year, just two years after another summer-long drought crippled many smaller operations. In Texas alone, cattle ranchers’ losses from last summer’s drought neared $1 billion, state agriculture officials said.

“Unfortunately, you can’t make [water], and we don’t have groundwater for irrigation, so you just pray on Mother Nature and hope she’s kind to you this time,” said Doug Satree, a fourth-generation cattle rancher in Montague, Texas.

Meanwhile, fertilizer, machinery and grain prices have risen sharply for more than a year, while fuel prices have fluctuated unpredictably.

And now the recession, in its 16th month, is expected to drive down demand for beef even further this year.

“If the economy is affected, then [consumers are] buying hamburger instead of steak,” said Bob Moorhouse, general manager of a ranching company with locations in Texas and Kansas. “And the ones that were buying hamburger are buying chicken now.”

So the return of the rustlers is coming just as ranchers are scraping to get by, leaving them particularly vulnerable.

“As the economy has worsened, the number of cattle and property thefts has gone up tremendously as unscrupulous people try to make a quick buck off the backs of hard-working citizens,” said Alabama Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks, who oversaw last month’s sting in that state. “So many farmers and business owners have been hurt by these thieves.”

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