As Cattle Prices Climb, Ranchers Watch Out For Bovine Thievery Across the U.S., cattle prices are at record highs. So ranchers and special rangers are working to protect herds from cattle rustlers — thieves looking to sell off stolen animals at auction.

As Cattle Prices Climb, Ranchers Watch Out For Bovine Thievery

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ARUN RATH: Across the country, cattle prices continue to rise. Drought in states like Texas and Oklahoma drove up the price of feed, forcing ranchers to sell off their cattle stock. This fall, feed prices dropped. And now ranchers are looking to replenish their dwindling herds.

Low supply and high demand are making for some very valuable cows. In Oklahoma, Tulsa stockyards reported selling 4,500 head of cattle at record prices in a single day's sale this month. Record prices mean ranchers have to be extra vigilant with their herds. Just ask Leon Langford. He owns a cattle ranch an hour south of Tulsa.

LEON LANGFORD: Our family's been in this business for 75 years, just general taking care of cattle, all day every day.

RATH: The Langfords have a thousand head of cattle on their ranch. But recently, 19 registered purebred Herefords, worth $100,000 dollars, suddenly disappeared.

(SOUNDBITE OF WESTERN MUSIC)

RATH: They were stolen. Like something out of an old Western movie, cattle rustlers, thieves, stealing cattle in the dead of night.

LANGFORD: You know, you're sick to your stomach because you lost them. But when you know they're stolen, it's even a little worse. Somebody takes things that don't belong to them, it's a sickening feeling.

RATH: Since the cattle were branded, law enforcement was able to identify some of the animals.

LANGFORD: Nobody else in Texas, New Mexico or Oklahoma's got that same brand. And we know when we see that brand, it's our cattle.

RATH: The woman selling them at an auction in Southern Oklahoma has since been sentenced to two years in jail.

LANGFORD: We're happy to get some of them back and we got a little over half of them back. I mean, all of the cattle were real valuable.

RATH: When cattle go missing, the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Association is on the case. You can find Special Ranger Wayne Goodman keeping an eye on local sale barns in Texas. With his badge, cowboy hat and pistol, I guess you could call him the sheriff of cattle country. Goodman's job is to track down rustlers. And his work keeps him busy.

WAYNE GOODMAN: I've got one I started yesterday where 50 calves were taken.

RATH: He says thieves will drive out to pasture and get a lay of the land. When it's time to strike...

GOODMAN: Come in at night, they will honk the horn, call the cows up. They'll pull in there with a trailer, load them up and they're gone.

RATH: For some ranchers, it could be days before they realize the herd has shrunk. That gives rustlers plenty of time to transport cattle out of state, never to be seen again.

GOODMAN: They usually take them to auction, kind of like if I break into your house and steal a TV set or your stereo or - I can take it to a pawn shop and I get 10 cents on the dollar, maybe, if I'm lucky. I can take your cows to an auction barn, and I get dollar-for-dollar.

RATH: It's a lucrative enterprise for the cattle rustler. For the rancher, it's devastating.

GOODMAN: These ranchers have a lot of money and a lot of time in these animals. Some guys could lose two or three and it would hurt them real bad because a lot of these cattle are mortgaged through banks. I worked a case out in East Texas when I was stationed out there, where I've got two families had to sell their homes because of loss of cattle.

RATH: It seems like it'd be impossible to track down stolen animals. But Goodman says it comes down to the tried and true method of identification.

GOODMAN: Now branding is the oldest form of identifying cattle but it's still the most effective.

RATH: He says in Texas, ranchers register their unique brand symbols.

GOODMAN: You have to put down what your brand is, draw a picture of it, and where are you going to put it on the animal. Left hip, right hip, right shoulder, left shoulder - all of that is part of your brand registration.

RATH: They also keep track of ear tags and small tattoos inside the animals' ears. It all goes into the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association database. So when a critter goes missing, special rangers know exactly what markings to look for at the local auction.

GOODMAN: We've had cases where we knew the cattle were stolen before the owner did.

RATH: The risk involved still doesn't stop the thieves.

GOODMAN: There's all kinds of reasons for it. I mean, there've been instances where one young man was doing it to pay his girlfriend's rent. It's all about the money.

RATH: And in this market, there's a lot of money to go around. For Special Ranger Wayne Goodman, he just hopes the money ends up in the right hands.

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