State rural crime investigators, ranchers and agriculture officials say they suspect rising prices for cattle and beef as likely factors in livestock thefts in Alabama and elsewhere.
The 10-person Alabama Agricultural and Rural Crime Unit has investigated numerous reports of stolen livestock and farm equipment since it was assembled last year, Lt. Gene Wiggins said.
Eleven Charolais cattle valued at about $12,000 were reported stolen in late June from a farm in Boaz, according to a report from the Etowah County Sheriff's Office. In late May, two men accused of stealing more than 50 cattle and farm equipment in south DeKalb County were also arrested on charges of theft, receiving stolen property and other offenses, according to the State of Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.
"When we first initiated this unit within the first couple of weeks, we worked on three significant cattle theft cases and arrests were made in two out of three cases," Wiggins said. He later added that nine people accused of stealing cattle have been arrested since the unit was launched, and some suspects were involved in thefts from multiple farms.
The thieves typically lure cattle into a pen with food while the animals aren't being monitored, said Vice President of the Alabama Cattlemen's Association Billy Powell.
Jeff Buttram, 52, said thieves stole 23 cows and 28 calves worth about $70,000 from his farm in Geraldine. His farming equipment had been targeted before, and Buttram said thieves also stole the security equipment he used to monitor his property and livestock after the initial thefts.
The cattle are usually sold to stockyards — sometimes out of state — unless auctioneers recognize tags or other identifying information and determine the livestock don't belong to the person selling it, Powell said.
"They're targeting farms like mine out in the middle of nowhere," Buttram said. He added that he doesn't live on his farm, which gives thieves opportunities to gather livestock, hitch a pen to a vehicle and flee without being noticed.
"Many times the cows are sold and the victim is at the mercy of the courts for restitution," Wiggins said. That was the case when cattle rustlers targeted Buttram's farm, and he doubted a suggestion by county prosecutors that seeking restitution would help address his financial loss.
"You can't never receive restitution from a meth head who's stealing to get by," Buttram said. He added that his insurance policy covered cattle killed in accidents, but not theft.
"You never think anyone's gonna steal your cattle," he said.
While reports of stolen cattle have been a longtime issue in Alabama, these types of thefts seem to be happening more frequently, Powell said.