AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
This next story is what happens when there's an increase in the price of beef and in substance abuse - cattle rustling. Jacob McCleland, of member station KGOU, reports on a surge in livestock theft that's putting some ranchers on edge.
JACOB MCCLELAND, BYLINE: Susan Edmondson cracks open a red gate at her farm near Henryetta, Okla. Black Angus cows stream by into the pasture, swatting away flies.
Edmondson's herd is a little smaller now. Cattle started disappearing one by one last fall. At first she thought they had just wandered off, but over the winter, more and more went away until she had lost 12 mama cows and 16 calves. The culprits - teenage cattle thieves. Edmondson knew them well.
SUSAN EDMONDSON: Two of the kids are my neighbors. Two of the kids were on my kids' football team. You know, I've coached them Little League, I've took them to rodeos with us. They live right across the street from me. I can see their house from my house, and they ate at my dinner table.
MCCLELAND: One of them, a 19-year-old, now sits in the county jail.
EDMONDSON: I don't know. It's, like, $65,000. It was a huge hit. It was a major hit.
JOHN CUMMINGS: It's low risk, high reward, really.
MCCLELAND: John Cummings is a special ranger for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. It investigates agricultural crimes in Texas and Oklahoma. He calls himself a cowboy cop, and he looks the part - cowboy hat, jeans, boots. But make no mistake, these are real officers with guns and jurisdiction in Texas and Oklahoma. About 4,000 head of livestock have been reported missing or stolen in the two states this year. That should outpace the number taken last year. Lately, Cummings has seen more calves go missing as their price rockets up.
CUMMINGS: So sometimes there are no brands, no ear tags, nothing, you know, so they're a little easier to steal physically, and they're sometimes easier to sell without detection because they are not marked and they're hard to identify.
MCCLELAND: In Oklahoma, a 525-pound calf can go for $1,300 at auction. A few years ago, it would've been $800. It's not all market-driven. Cummings estimates more than two-thirds of the thefts involve drug and alcohol addiction.
CUMMINGS: We've had cases where people have actually stolen cattle, taken them to local person and put them on their land and in exchange got drugs for those cattle.
MCCLELAND: And meth imported from Mexico remains the drug of choice in rural Oklahoma, though heroin is becoming a problem. There've been a few granddaddy cattle heists, like 1,100 head taken from a fast-food chain's farm in Follett, Texas, but the vast majority are just a handful of cows.
CUMMINGS: Most ranches in Oklahoma are small, under 50 head. The profit margin's small, so it doesn't take much of a theft to put them in a bad situation.
MCCLELAND: A bad situation like the one Susan Edmondson now faces. She sells calves every year to make her loan payments.
EDMONDSON: It just puts me in a bind. I mean, people don't think anything about it when they're like, oh, somebody just stole a cow, or they took a cow, or this or that. But when it's that big of a hit, I mean, it - I don't know if I can make my payment this year. I mean, it - you know, it's devastating.
MCCLELAND: Ranger John Cummings says stealing cattle is tantamount to stealing bread from somebody's family. And that's something a rural jury isn't going to forget. For NPR News, I'm Jacob McCleland in Norman, Okla.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.