Mention “livestock identification” nowadays and you're likely to get a wide range of reactions. Mention it to a rustler, however, and the reaction is likely to be a bit different.
The easier they are to identify, the less incentive there is to steal them. Which is, of course, why stockmen have been branding their livestock to declare ownership since the dawn of civilization.
But what about your saddle? How about your stock trailer or the Handy-Man jack in the back of your pickup? Could you walk into a pawnshop and prove, beyond doubt, that the set of wrenches on the shelf are yours?
With a little forethought and a bit of effort, you can, says Special Ranger Scott Williamson, Seymour, TX. Williamson is a regional supervisor and Special Ranger with the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA), one of 28 rangers in the TSCRA law enforcement department. These “cow cops,” scattered throughout Texas and Oklahoma, are commissioned by the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation and specialize in rural law enforcement, including thefts of livestock and ranch equipment.
And in his years of investigating thefts, attempting to recover stolen livestock and equipment and interviewing bad guys, Williamson has learned a thing or two about how you can protect yourself from becoming a victim.
Start by making a mark
To begin with, he says, have your livestock, equipment and property identified.
For livestock, that means at least a brand. For equipment and property, that means keeping records of serial numbers or other ID numbers that come with the item; or marking smaller items, like saddles and tools, with your driver's license number and state.
A driver's license number is the best because it can be easily tracked. “Whether it's in a pawnshop or somewhere else, we can access that number by radio or by phone immediately,” he says.
Marking it with your name is fine, but the chances that the item will end up where somebody will know who you are are slim, he says. “We're finding that more of this property isn't going like it did to the local pawnshop or the flea market in the next little town. It's becoming more organized, so that something stolen here may end up in Mexico or Florida or New York.”
When you have that much distance involved, he says, being able to identify something reported missing as “a brown saddle” is just about impossible without some specific identifier that's easily accessible by a law enforcement agency.
Brands are important
When it comes to livestock, a brand is still the best way to go. “I can't emphasize enough how important it is to brand your livestock,” Williamson says.
He's also an advocate of ear notches and ear tags. “I understand that ear tags can be cut out, but it's another form of evidence.” Even if the tag is cut out, that in itself is evidence. The tag will leave a mark in the ear, which is a form of documentable evidence, and they've had cases where they were able to recover the cut-out tags, providing a strong case that the people who removed the tags were attempting to cover up the identity of the animals.
Other forms of livestock ID are still valuable, he adds, and some forms, like DNA and tattoos, are useful, but they have their drawbacks. “When you mix a black calf that is tattooed into the system of black steers or black heifers in the U.S. market, without knowing that specific animal, you lose traceability,” Williamson says.
The same problem exists with DNA sampling. “Many times, particularly in yearlings, DNA isn't applicable because you're talking about a commingled set of cattle coming from public markets, so there's no DNA history on those animals to begin with.”
Re-brand every set of cattle you buy, and if you're taking in yearlings to graze on the gain, make sure the owner brands the cattle with his or her brand. And know your brand laws in the state where you live, so you can ensure that the brand is properly registered.
Lock everything up
Next, he says, lock up gates, trucks, tractors, trailers and anything else you can. “Believe me, I'm from a rural community and nothing makes me madder than to walk up to a door and it's locked, or not having the keys already in the pickup when I want to use it, so I understand the frustration,” Williamson says. But time after time, apprehended suspects have told him they prefer to avoid locked gates and locked doors.
“If your fences are well kept and your gates locked, the people we have interviewed say they would prefer to go on down to where it appears somebody isn't coming in and out of the property, where they could go in and not leave any visible sign.” While he says there will always be those circumstances where the lock or chain is cut, “there are a certain percentage of those who don't want to throw up that red flag.”
Williamson says Neighborhood Watch programs have proven effective in urban areas, and law enforcement is beginning to push that concept in rural settings.
“One, understand the way your neighbors do business. Who's in and out of places,” he says. Then, document any activity that seems out of place. Williamson is also a rancher and carries a pocket calendar, the kind you get at the end of the year from your bank or fuel supplier, in his ranch pickup. “And if I see somebody in my neighbor's pasture or a gate unlocked that I'm not used to seeing open, I'll make a jot of that if I can't get hold of that person.”
And don't assume that you'll remember. “I'll talk with people and they'll say I can't remember if it was last week or two weeks ago, but I remember I saw something. It helps us tremendously to be able to have specific information. Those pieces, a lot of times, will help us put together cases.”
The ancient Greek playwright Euripides once observed, “The day is for honest men, the night for thieves.” Euripides likely wasn't a rancher, because Williamson says many rural thefts occur during daylight hours.
One of the first cases he worked involved a gooseneck trailer that was stolen off the yard at a cotton gin at noon. “They said he just waved at everybody on the yard and drove off. They all assumed that nobody would steal something at noon and that the kid (who owned the trailer) had loaned it to somebody. And away he went.”
Crimes of opportunity, those spontaneous acts that happen when a dishonest person sees your jack in the back of your pickup, for example, will always happen, particularly if you provide the opportunity. But more and more, Williamson says, they're investigating crimes that are planned.
“We're being inundated with a rash of trailer and tractor thefts. Those, we find, are reasonably well thought out,” he says. When they interview suspects after they're caught, the TSCRA Special Rangers find that the suspect had an order for the equipment. “They'll have organized notes and maps of where things are located.”
Even thefts of smaller items and livestock can be reasonably well planned, he says. “Many livestock pens aren't in a publicly known place. They're down behind a break or in a bottom or a back pasture, someplace that may not be noticeable from the road. And when we have thefts out of those locations, it's nearly always somebody who has a tie to the property.”
So know who the people are who have access to your property. Who delivers your feed? Who have you given keys or lock combinations to? “Be cognizant of who is on your property,” Williamson advises.
Another hot spot of increased criminal activity is in areas of highway construction. “You've got crews from all over the U.S. coming. Most of the time, it's not the most reputable people (who work on highway-construction crews) and they're driving day in and day out (by a ranch or farm). They see where stuff is, and when people are coming in and out.” If they get rained out and have a weekend to go home, they may stop in. An unlocked barn and unmarked tools, and they have gas money home.
And finally, he says, ranchers who tend to their business, keep records, count their cattle regularly and post their property have fewer theft problems. “The thieving community is aware of who tends to business or who wouldn't know if they had it or didn't have it. And those tend to make harder or easier targets, however the case may be.”
Wanted: Cow thieves
The TSCRA law enforcement department started an innovative project this year designed to make it easy for people to anonymously report ag-related thefts and get rewarded for their efforts. Called “Operation Cow Thief,” the program is patterned after the successful efforts by state wildlife agencies, including the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's “Operation Game Thief.”
Operation Cow Thief is funded entirely by donations from ranchers and others, plus fundraising efforts by the Special Rangers themselves. Tipsters can call a toll-free number (888-830-2333) to report crimes statewide.
14 Theft-prevention tips
Here is TSCRA's list of things you can do to prevent theft on your property:
Display TSCRA member sign (or the member sign from your state cattlemen's association) on gates and entrances. It's an excellent deterrent.
Brand cattle and horses — make sure the brand is recorded.
Put your driver's license number on all saddles, tack and equipment.
Video horses and tack. Keep complete and accurate descriptions on file. Establish an organized, easy-to-find, proof-of-ownership file to save valuable time in the recovery process.
Count cattle regularly.
Don't establish a routine when feeding. Vary the time when you feed.
Be cautious of who you give keys and combinations to.
If possible, park trailers and equipment out of view from the road.
Keep tack rooms and saddle compartments on trailers locked.
Don't feed in pens.
Participate in neighborhood Crime Watch programs.
Don't build pens too close to the roadway.
Never leave keys in tractors or in other equipment.