It’s summer time and the living is just a bit easier for Mississippi’s agriculture theft investigators — at least when it comes to chasing down cattle rustlers.
But no one can say how long things will stay that way as beef prices head to record levels and thieves out for a lucrative score begin trying their hand at rustling.
Cindy Hyde-Smith, a Brookhaven cattle farmer and Mississippi commissioner of agriculture and commerce, said she has had reports thefts are rising and could continue climbing along with the price of beef, which the Mississippi State University Agricultural Extension Service says is up about 15 to 20 percent from the same time last year.
A recent auction at the Brookhaven Stockyard showed prices ranging from 70 cents to 90 cents a pound on slaughter cattle and up to $1.49 a pound on feeder steers and a $1.50 on feeder heifers.
Smaller herds — the thinnest in 60 years — coupled with high summer demand for beef have pushed prices up, the Mississippi Cattlemen’s Association says.
John Michael Riley, an economist with the Agriculture Extension Service, attributes the drop in cattle numbers to last year’s draught across the Southern United States that limited supplies of grass and water needed to feed cattle. “We’re starting to get into that again this year,” he said. “It is forcing folks’ hands. They are having to get rid of them” ahead when they otherwise would.”
Hyde-Smith said she sees a definite link between cattle prices and rising thefts. “Cattle prices are higher than they have ever been in my lifetime,” she said. “People are stealing the cattle because the price is so high on them.”
Most of the thefts involve only a half-dozen or so animals at a time, she said.
For now, those thefts in small groups are occurring but not in numbers noticeably higher than other summers, said Robert Jordan, who as director of the Agriculture and Livestock Theft Bureau oversees nine investigators.
Though theft levels will vary, typically around 250 head are stolen in a year “and one guy will account for 30 to 40 of those,” he said.
Rustlers keep Jordan and his officers busy in the winter as thieves target groupings of cattle that are feeding near holding pens. “Rustlers will herd the cattle into the catch pens. They’ll confine them there and just load them into trailers. They just back the trailer up and load the livestock,” he said.
If no pens are nearby, the thieves will bring their own panels (usually stolen from another farm) and erect holding pens.
The cows are accustomed to being fed often that time of the year and easily follow commands, Jordan said. “You just honk your horn and they’ll come running to you.”
Hyde-Smith said most of the purloined cows are sold in small groups to individual buyers. But on occasion thieves will be brazen enough to try to unload them at a sale barn, she said. “We’ve arrested them right there in the ag yard,” she said.
In most instances, people taking part in the sales can spot someone trying to sell contraband cattle, she said, “even if a couple hundred people are there.”
Often, however, it is difficult to know for sure someone is selling a hijacked heifer, said Riley. “One black-hided calf standing next to another black colored calf look pretty similar,” he said.
Typically, if the rustlers are headed for a sale barn they find one away from the region in which they made their heist, Riley added.
Moving across state lines with the stolen animals in tow can be risky for the rustlers as well, he said, noting that federal Department of Transportation officers are likely to pursue any trailer trucks that by- pass an inspection station.
The DOT officers will want to see a veterinarian’s certificate of health for the animals, Riley said.
That is why thieves crossing state lines typically head for the first sale barn they can find, said Jordan, the ag theft investigator.
Sale barn operators are not required to verify ownership of the animals sold in their barns, Jordan said, but they must record a description of the animals sold, the seller’s name, the seller’s vehicle tag number and trailer tag number.
Most of the barn operators are helpful to investigators, according to Jordan. “These guys are OK. They’re not like pawn shop owners.”
Seldom do investigators find an organized ring behind the cattle thefts, Jordan said. “More often it is just somebody who is too sorry to work and is just looking to make a buck.”
And the person who knows he’s buying bogusly obtained beef on the hoof?
That typically is a farmer looking “to buy low and sell high,” the investigator said.
“Some of these guys will take a deal, if you know what I mean.”
Hyde-Smith suspects Mississippi cattle raisers are a bit too neighborly. “People in Mississippi don’t lock their gates,” she said. “But when you have something that valuable, you best secure it.”
More owners are probably doing just that, Riley said, now that a cow can fetch $1,000 to $2,000 and a calf $800 to $1,200.
“With cattle prices at these rates, I think you’re probably seeing more locks and more chains.”