Investigators have found clues to be elusive, partly because thieves often artfully conceal their crimes by replacing pasture fences they've cut to get to the animals.
Even with cattle theft rampant in much of the nation's midsection, Oklahoma rancher Ryan Payne wasn't worried about anyone messing with his cows and calves. By his estimation, his pasture is so far off the beaten path "you need a helicopter to see it."
That changed last month when Payne, 37, checked on his livestock and found a ghoulish scene: Piles of entrails from two Black Angus calves he says thieves gutted "like they were deer." They made off with the meat and another 400-lb. calf in a heist he estimated cost him $1,800.
"Gosh, times are tough, and maybe people are truly starving and just need the meat," he says. "It's shocking. I can't believe people can stoop that low."
While the brazenness may be unusual, the theft isn't. High beef prices have made cattle attractive as a quick score for people struggling in the sluggish economy, and other livestock are being taken, as well. Six thousand lambs were stolen from a feedlot in Texas, and nearly 1,000 hogs have been stolen in recent weeks from farms in Iowa and Minnesota. The thefts add up to millions of dollars in losses for U.S. ranches.