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According to a Michigan State University study, statistics from around the country show that cattle rustlers and horse thieves ply their nefarious trades in modern times, and are causing serious problems for some producers. Cattle thieves are especially active in states where cattle are big business

Logan Hawkes 1, Contributing Writer

March 7, 2017

6 Min Read
Cattle rustling remains a troubling fact of modern day livestock production.

The idea of mounted cattle rustlers hijacking a herd of steers from a remote ranch in the Texas outback conjures up visions of an Alan Ladd or Gary Cooper movie straight out of the 1960s, a classic white hat versus black hat, cowboy action adventure-thriller that entertained movie goers of the time as they watched the good side of people overcome the bad side on a big silver screen.

Truth is, while those old good guy/bad guy golden westerns have, by and large, been replaced by spy thrillers and crime stories in Hollywood, real life cattle rustling has been around about as long as the domestication of livestock, and modern times are no exception. Plenty of cases of bad guys taking from good guys on the ranch for the sake of profit still exist, and the white hats still engage the black hats in the pursuit of justice and the idea of law and order.


As a case in point, take the recent conviction of a trio of so-called modern bandits charged with plotting against a Nebraska cattle broker in the wrongful purchase of cattle through a kiting scheme. With a unanimous jury vote, a Texas jury awarded $23.1 million to Midwestern Cattle, LLC, the largest cattle fraud case in Texas history.

In the civil case, the jury found a trio of defendants guilty of defrauding the cattle company with a check scheme where, figuratively, Peter robbed Paul to pay Peter's partner. The case gets complicated quickly, but in short, the defendants were charged with writing checks to cover illegal or non-existent cattle sales while turning a profit using money and cattle that technically did not belong to them.

In that particular case, one of the defendants had a history of defrauding companies through bad cattle deals, and he still owes millions in relation to those cases.

The incident shows that not only is cattle rustling—in one form or another—still alive and well, but the ways and methods in which rustling is carried out have improved, in some cases becoming more complex and sophisticated, making it even more important to guard against such rustling schemes than was the case in the days of the Old West, when a horse, a gun, and a gang were all that was needed.

According to a Michigan State University study, statistics from around the country show that cattle rustlers and horse thieves ply their nefarious trades in modern times, and are causing serious problems for some producers. Cattle thieves are especially active in states where cattle are big business.


For example, cattle rustling in California, Colorado, Wyoming and Washington accounted as many as 3,500 head of stolen cattle in a recent survey, and the numbers are even greater for larger cattle producing states. In Texas and Oklahoma, two top cattle producing states, cattle rustling had such an impact that the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA) has a unit with Special Rangers investigating cattle theft. The association also investigates the theft of saddles, tack, trailers, and related property.

In 2006, according to the Michigan State study, nearly $5 million in stolen property, including 3,716 head of cattle, 144 horses, 10 trailers, and 18 saddles, had been recovered, and much more remains missing and unresolved.

More than cattle come up missing. Although cows are the prime target of thieves, they also steal horses and other livestock. The TSCRA reported receiving, on average, one report per day of a stolen horse. One nation-wide organization, Stolen Horse International, Inc., is working to bring attention to this cause. They aim to build an international network, NetPosse, to disseminate images and information on missing and stolen horses, and also provide educational opportunities to improve public awareness on horse theft and identification methods through seminars, presentations, and exhibits.



And while cattle and horse theft is more common than most imagine, researchers say the sheer number of theft incidents may be on the rise. 

Investigators say many ranchers may not realize their cattle are missing until months after the loss. Some ranchers turn cattle out to graze in the spring and don’t count them again until fall. One rancher in Oregon puts his 1,000 head of cattle on about 130,000 acres and uses a small plane and helicopter to inspect the herd and about 400 to 500 miles of fence.

In other cases, losses can be attributed to absentee or inexperienced ranchers. Land in some states, including Wyoming, is owned by people from out of state who want a “hobby” ranch but are unfamiliar with proper herd management, making them easy prey for rustlers.

According to one source, a typical suspect has been raised on a farm or ranch, knows how to handle livestock and where to dispose of them.

Most thefts involve breaking into a pasture at night and loading cattle onto a waiting trailer, and are normally limited in number by what the trailer can hold. They also often target unbranded calves, which can then be branded with the thief’s own brand.

According to the MSU study, the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA) investigates agricultural thefts throughout Texas and Oklahoma, by authority of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation and the Texas Department of Public Safety. The TSCRA special rangers consist of a 29-member task force patrolling 96.5 million acres across Oklahoma and Texas. Seventy market inspectors monitor 125 cattle auctions and two horse-processing plants throughout Texas, and they inspect every animal that goes through the auctions, five to six million head each year, and record identifying characteristics such as brands, sex, color, tags, horns, and ear marks.


They also document the shipper’s name, address, and license plate number. All of this information is sent to the TSCRA headquarters, where it is entered into a central database, which in turn is distributed to more than 700 law enforcement agencies nationwide. When cattle are reported missing, their descriptions are matched against those in the database.

In addition to these efforts, some states have established reward programs for information leading to the arrest of thieves. The TSCRA, for example, has established a reward program called Operation Cow Thief. The program provides up to a $1000 reward to people who provide information leading to the arrest and indictment of individuals for theft of livestock or related property. The program has a toll-free number that is monitored 24 hours a day (800-242-7820).


Producers are encouraged to take steps to decrease their risk of being targeted. The TSCRA lists the following theft prevention tips:


  • Lock gates.


  • Brand cattle and horses, and make sure the brand is recorded with the county clerk.


  • Put driver’s license numbers on all saddles, tack, and equipment.


  • Video horses and tack.  Keep complete and accurate descriptions on file.


  • Count cattle regularly.


  • Don’t establish a routine when feeding.


  • Park trailers and equipment where they are out of view from the roadway.


  • Keep tack rooms and saddle compartments on trailers locked.


  • Don’t feed in pens.


  • Participate in neighborhood Crime Watch programs.


  • Don’t build pens close to a roadway.


  • Never leave keys in tractors or other equipment.

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