ST. LOUIS — Even with cattle theft rampant in much of the nation's midsection, Oklahoma rancher Ryan Payne wasn't worried about anyone messing with his cows and calves. By his estimation, his pasture is so far off the beaten path "you need a helicopter to see it."
That changed last month when Payne, 37, checked on his livestock and found a ghoulish scene: Piles of entrails from two Black Angus calves he said thieves gutted "like they were deer." They made off with the meat and another 400-pound calf in a heist he estimated cost him $1,800.
"Gosh, times are tough, and maybe people are truly starving and just need the meat," he said. "But it's shocking. I can't believe people can stoop that low."
While the brazenness may be unusual, the theft isn't. High beef prices have made cattle attractive as a quick score for people struggling in the sluggish economy, and other livestock are being taken too. Six thousand lambs were stolen from a feedlot in Texas, and nearly 1,000 hogs have been stolen in recent weeks from farms in Iowa and Minnesota. The thefts add up to millions of dollars in losses for U.S. ranches.
Authorities say today's thieves are sophisticated compared to the horseback bandits of the rugged Old West. They pull up livestock trailers in the middle of the night and know how to coax the animals inside. Investigators suspect it's then a quick trip across state lines to sell the animals at auction barns.
"It almost has to be someone who knows about the business, including just knowing where to take the cattle," said Carmen Fenton, a spokeswoman for the 15,000-member Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, formed in the 1870s specifically to combat cattle rustlers. "It's crazy to think we're still in business."
There's no clearinghouse that tracks thefts nationally, but statistics among certain states are staggering. In Texas — the nation's biggest cattle producer — and to a lesser extent Oklahoma, some 4,500 cattle have been reported missing or stolen this year, according to Fenton's group. The association's special rangers managed to recover or account for $4.8 million in stolen ranch property each of the previous two years, most of it steers, bulls, cows and calves.
Such thefts also are happening in places once spared. In southwestern Missouri's Jasper County, not far from a regional stockyard, about 100 of the nearly 180 head of cattle stolen this year were snatched during a recent six-week stretch, sheriff's Lt. Ron Thomas said.
"Occasionally one or two have gotten stolen (over the years), but not this many in such a short time. They've gotten us big time," he said, figuring the stolen livestock have been whisked off to another state. "These guys are not your typical fly-by-night, let's-steal-a-cow kinda people. They know exactly what they're doing. They're pretty slick, and they're bold."
Investigators have found clues to be elusive, partly because thieves often artfully conceal their crimes by replacing pasture fences they've cut to get to the animals, Thomas said. Ranchers unaccustomed to counting their cattle each day may not realize any are missing for a week or more, and by then, any tire tracks or other evidence — perhaps even DNA or fingerprints from a soda or beer can discarded by the bandit — may be gone.
The other problem is that while brands are widely used in the West, three states hard hit by livestock thefts — Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas — don't require them. That's hampered investigators' efforts to match recovered cattle to owners or to relay to stockyards markings to watch for when strangers haul in livestock to be sold.
Without brands, "ranchers could tell me their missing cow is brown and white, but goodness gracious, go down the road and you'll see thousands," Thomas said.
While a voluntary national livestock identification system exists, few ranchers and farmers participate in it.
"Unfortunately, cattle don't have a serial number that goes with them or some type of permanent ID" short of branding, said Jim Fraley, an Illinois Farm Bureau livestock specialist. "Thieves look at it as an opportunity and can market the cattle under their name. It's a fairly easy thing to do."
Owners' vigilance has paid off in some cases. A Colorado rancher who was hunting prairie dogs spotted one of his branded, missing cows on another man's property. Deputies swooped in and found 36 cows and 31 calves worth $68,000 and belonging to nine different people.
An Alabama rancher reported a couple of his cattle missing, and then two more were stolen the next night, Chilton County Sheriff Kevin Davis said. Sheriff's investigators installed cameras on the property but got nothing before pulling them days later.
Not long after, the farmer called because he spotted two men with a pickup truck and what turned out to be a stolen trailer on his land. Deputies arrested the men and found five of the six missing cows — half of them pregnant — at various locations. The sixth had already been slaughtered.
Davis credited luck and the rancher's "heightened alert" for snaring the two suspects.
"The boldness is the thing — for them to come back three different times to the same pasture," he said. "Obviously, they didn't feel very threatened about being caught. But I've never given criminals credit for having high intelligence."
And they're not finicky. An Ohio woman has been charged with taking $110,000 worth of frozen bull semen — which can be valuable to breeders in even small amounts — from a liquid-nitrogen tank at a Moorefield Township genetics company where she once worked.
Nor are all the thefts big. Someone recently made off with two horses — ages 16 and 7 — from a home near Hanover in northeastern Illinois' Jo Daviess County.
Back in Oklahoma, Payne replaced old wire gates on his ranch near Chelsea with "big, old heavy-duty steel ones," hoping to safeguard his other cows.
"That's about all I can do," he said. "Like everyone says, it never happens to me. I guess that's wrong."