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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Hay is a critical source of food for cattle, sheep and other livestock, especially important as the winter months close in. And given the harsh drought in recent years, it's increasingly scarce and expensive. In fact, the price of hay has reached record levels, and reports of hay theft have been on the rise. To find out more, we called up Bobby Whittington, the sheriff of Tillman County, Oklahoma. He and his three deputies are responsible for 900 square miles of row land.

Welcome to the program.

SHERIFF BOBBY WHITTINGTON: Thank you, ma'am.

MONTAGNE: So you, yourself, have seen a big rise in hay theft there in Tillman County.

WHITTINGTON: Well, the exceptional drought that we have been in the past couple of years has made hay a very sought after premium here.

MONTAGNE: Are they stealing them for their own use, or to sell? And if to sell, what's a hay bale worth?

WHITTINGTON: Well, they're doing both. A normal bale prior to the drought - depending on what it was - grass hay for 15, 20, $25. Alfalfa was running you 45 to $60. And now grass hay in this area is running at 65, 70, if you can find it. And Alfalfa's running as high as 140 to $150 a bale.

MONTAGNE: And it's particularly easy to steal? I mean, I think of - and I come from a family of, actually, ranchers in western Nebraska. I think of hay as being big bale, and sitting right out there in the field.

WHITTINGTON: Yes, ma'am. Most of the produces here in Tillman County, once they have cut or harvested a field and the hay is baled, they'll stack it on the edge of the road at the field.

MONTAGNE: Well, that's very convenient, right on the edge of the road.

WHITTINGTON: Yes, ma'am. And it's easy access for the hay thieves, and easy getaway.

MONTAGNE: Are there any precautions that farmers and ranchers can take?

WHITTINGTON: Well, they need to put as many gates or obstructions between the roadway and the hay as possible. And they need to check it periodically, make sure that they put 50 bales in the field, that there's 50 bales there. You know, count it. Make sure it's there.

MONTAGNE: They can't brand it or put dye in it, or anything like that?

WHITTINGTON: No. That's kind of hard to do with the mass production the way is done, to put any special markings on it.

MONTAGNE: I gather that you decided, though, to do something rather creative, and that was to put a GPS device inside some hay.

WHITTINGTON: A farmer here in Tillman County sustained several thefts from the same field. And we decided to put a GPS in one of the bales and see whether the thief would take the bale or not. And they did.

MONTAGNE: And so you followed that bale of hay?

WHITTINGTON: Yes, ma'am. Basically, we - the night that this happened, the GPS was programmed to text my cell phone whenever it left a certain area. And I received a text about 9:40, 9:45 p.m. And I immediately called my under-sheriff and had him get on the computer so he could track the location of the bale. And he was able to relay to me where the bale was at.

And I arrived in time to see the suspect vehicle kind of drop the bale off behind a house. And then the vehicle left, and I was following it. And I decided to see whether they would go back for another bale. So I followed the vehicle down a country road with my lights out and observed him pull into the farmer's field who'd been reporting the theft and snatch another bale and drive off, at which time they were stopped.

MONTAGNE: So you sort of nabbed them in the act?

WHITTINGTON: Yes, ma'am.

MONTAGNE: What did they do?

WHITTINGTON: Well, they were kind of shocked. They were kind of defiant. When I first stopped them, they wanted to know the reason why I stopped them. And I told them that we needed to talk about the hay bale they had on their vehicle. They said, well, it's my hay bale. I said, it's not what the GPS says. He kind of dropped his old head and said, well, can I just take it back and not go to jail? And I said no.

MONTAGNE: My first thought when I heard about this, is I figured out in the West, or in a place like Oklahoma, stealing a bale of hay, sort of close to something like hay rustling, I mean, is really serious. What are the penalties?

WHITTINGTON: The penalties can be three to five years in a state penitentiary.

MONTAGNE: So that's pretty serious.

WHITTINGTON: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: Bobby Whittington is the sheriff of Tillman County, Oklahoma. Thank you very much for talking with us.

WHITTINGTON: Thank you, ma'am. Appreciate it.

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