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.
"We've had more in the last two years," he said. "Part of it I attribute to the increase in prices and the increase in the value of these cattle."
Prices for steers have been particularly high in 2014 for a number of reasons, according to William Hahn of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Markets and Trade Economics Division. Drought conditions in areas known for livestock production — like Texas and California — have factored into the price increases, along with a rise in the price of grain used to feed cattle, he said.
Prices for cattle were about $1.55 per pound on July 12, according to USDA data. On July 15, 2013, the price per-pound for cattle was about $1.20 compared with about 91 cents per pound in early July of 2010. A 1,200 pound steer can typically make about 500 pounds of beef sold in retail markets — where consumers have also been faced with higher prices, Hahn said. Prices for cattle and beef aren't expected to fall in the near future, making livestock an increasingly attractive target for thieves, Hahn said.
"If they can get away with it, it's pretty lucrative right now because cattle prices are so high," Wiggins said. "It's a good time to be in the cattle business right now, and what they're doing is taking advantage of ranchers' hard work."
Buttram said livestock was his primary source of income and cattle rustling can be devastating to farmers.
"It's a huge setback," Buttram said, adding that he can't afford to replace the cattle that were stolen this spring. "It's gonna get to where farmers are gonna have to just sit out with a gun."