SALEM, Ore. - A factor of supply and demand has driven cattle prices to historic highs this summer. That's both good news and bad news for Oregon ranchers.
They can expect to make a bigger profit when they take their animals to market, but they also potentially face cattle theft from modern-day rustlers who now have a bigger economic incentive to commit a crime.
"Ranchers need to be more vigilant than ever this summer by taking steps to deter theft," says Rodger Huffman, manager of the Oregon Department of Agriculture's Animal Identification Program.
"Cattle prices continue to grow, which makes the concern grow because of the opportunities for someone to make a pretty large sum of money quickly by committing a crime," he said.
Market prices for cattle are now reaching, in some cases, more than twice the average of just a couple of years ago. The sale of even a few stolen cattle can net a thief a healthy profit.
Cases of cattle theft have already been reported this year, including a Malheur County incident in which Butler Ranches is offering a $50,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.
It would come as a surprise if this year's number for missing cattle reported doesn't exceed last year's 242 mark.
And while only an estimated 20 percent of all missing animals may end up determined as stolen, the dollar amount associated with their theft is significant to the producer.
With cattle out on the range, stealing animals and then taking them to market is not the only concern this summer. There is another form of theft.
"We anticipate there potentially will be more cattle unaccounted for when ranchers gather their animals this fall, partly due to theft but also due to butchering taking place on the range lands," says Huffman. "Sometimes when we see a spike in food costs, we see more people going out and shooting livestock, butchering the animals on the spot for their own consumption."
Two-legged predators of livestock are joined by a relatively new four-legged predator in many parts of Eastern Oregon. When cattle are reported missing, wolves are added to the equation as something to consider. Some of the same steps to prevent losses due to theft can be taken to protect livestock from wolves.
"Having someone physically check up on livestock frequently is an effective tool and deterrent for all predators, including humans," says Huffman. "The expense of having that physical presence is easily offset by the value of those animals, especially with today's prices for cattle."
Marking livestock with some kind of recognizable identification is another good idea. For mature animals, brands provide a cattle's return address. In a court of law, the brand is used as proof of ownership.
Brands are not mandatory in Oregon, but state law does require that all cattle, both branded and unbranded, be inspected before leaving the state, before being sold at an auction, before being taken to a slaughterhouse, and when change of ownership occurs.
Huffman agrees that would-be thieves are more likely to grab and nab when they think nobody is watching. But while the sophistication of physically taking livestock hasn't increased much in recent years, there has been an steep rise in finding an accessible market for stolen animals.
"With modern vehicles, the transport is certainly easier and faster than it was in the old days, but more importantly, the ability to market those animals through the Internet makes us quite nervous," says Huffman.
Technology is now able to bring buyer and seller together very quickly. With the temptation of going online, thieves have a readily available market. They can steal animals overnight, look on a site like craigslist for those wanting to purchase cattle, and deliver the animals in a matter of hours.
"We would have to monitor the Internet 24 hours a day, seven days a week – and even then, we might not catch someone selling stolen cattle," says Huffman.
Buyers are most likely an unsuspecting party to the theft, but they can play a huge role in tracking down the crime. Local law enforcement and ODA stress the need for proof of ownership during transactions.
"People buying animals through these new media need to have documented proof of ownership from the sellers so that the animals can be traced if we suspect they were stolen," says Huffman.
"At the very least, buyers should get a bill of sale that includes a name, address, and phone number. If an ODA brand inspector asks for proof of ownership, you will at least have something we can go back and validate."
If there isn't proof of ownership, prospective buyers should reject the transaction and contact local law enforcement or the local ODA brand inspector.
Rural crime may not get reported by big city media, but its impact – particularly on farmers and ranchers – is hard to ignore.
Theft of crops, farm equipment, and cattle this summer are attributed to the price those stolen items command in the marketplace. However, it might be even more challenging to steal something in the wide open spaces compared to urban centers.
"In rural areas, most people know who is supposed to be there and what they are supposed to be doing," says Huffman. "If somebody sees something, they'll know if it is normal activity or not, unlike what might be happening in the city. Even if there are fewer eyes to spot crime, they are probably better trained eyes."
Meanwhile, the investigation and prosecution of cattle theft is an ongoing challenge, as local sheriffs and district attorneys deal with more and more crimes against people, rather than property.
Still, suspicious activity involving livestock should be reported to law enforcement or ODA. The agriculture community can help.
Hopefully, an ounce of prevention by ranchers and prospective buyers to thwart cattle thieves will be worth a pound of cure– or perhaps several hundred pounds of cure, depending on the size of the animal.
For more information, contact Rodger Huffman at (541) 663-0199.