published Wednesday, May 28th, 2014

Bull market for cattle rustlers: Dozens of cows stolen in Northeast Alabama as beef prices soar

Somebody is hauling away cows of DeKalb County, Ala., like a bandit behind the wheel of a rural Brink’s truck.

This person — or people, the sheriff’s office didn’t know for sure as of Tuesday — stole from a pair of farmers in the last two weeks, taking more than 50 cows and calves. If the thief gets away with it, he or she could turn a serious illegal profit. The animals could be worth $80,000 — enough to buy, say, a new 2014 Porsche Boxster.

The theft comes at a time when cattle farmers are experiencing a bull market, the price of heifers up 60-100 percent now compared to five years ago.

“They’re sort of like gold now,” said DeKalb County Sheriff Jimmy Harris.

People steal cows from time to time in Northeast Alabama. But in his 25 years on the force, Harris said he’s never seen this many cattle taken in such a short period of time.

The first theft happened around May 13 in the New Harmony Community on County Road 58, just a couple of miles east of Marshall County. Harris would not say which farmer got ripped off, but he said about 35 were taken: 20 cows and 15 calves.

Then, on May 24, somebody stole three more cows, nine more calves and a John Deere Gator from the same place. Around the same time, somebody lifted three black baldy heifers from another spot on County Road 58, about a mile down the road.

Those three heifers are special, said Landon Marks, an agent with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, a group that consults with the state’s farmers. Those three heifers are registered, meaning they’re pure bred, meaning they will probably give birth to fat calves, meaning they’re worth more money than other heifers.

Depending on the pedigree of the heifer, it can be worth between $2,000 and $10,000. So three of them can be worth $6,000 to $30,000.

Concerning the first farm, each one of its 23 cows could be worth about $1,200, Marks said. And the 24 calves? Those are each worth about $970.

Cattle prices have risen in recent years because of droughts in many parts of the country that started in 2007. The droughts killed many cows and heifers, and some farmers who anticipated lean years sold many of their cattle earlier than they usually would have.

As a result, there are fewer cattle available: 87.7 million this year, the lowest total since the 1950s, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. And because there are twice as many Americans now than there were in the 1950s, and because America also exports beef to several other countries, cattle that is still around is worth more than five years ago.

This is the basic rule of supply and demand, illustrated.

Marks said the farmer who lost cows twice does not live on the same land as his cows. Like a lot of farmers in the area, raising cattle is a second source of income. So, sometime after the first theft, the farmer arrived on the land and noticed that some of his about 90 cattle were missing.

He set up security cameras, in case the thieves returned, Marks said. And they did return. But the thieves found the cameras, and took them, too.

“These are professionals,” Marks said.

In an unrelated case, about 25 miles away, two more cows were found shot dead. The culprits, whoever they are, shot the cows in the body. Harris suspects the shooters were just bored, looking for something to do in the rural community.

The sheriff said the owner of those cows is offering a $2,500 reward for anyone who has information that leads to a conviction. The two theft victims are also offering rewards — $2,500 from one farmer, $5,000 from the other.

“That’s a pretty good bit of money, you know?” Harris said. “Maybe people will start talking. I don’t know if we’d get that much from the governor on a murder [case].”

Anyone with information can contact investigators with the Alabama Agriculture and Rural Crime Unit, a group that specializes in crimes such as this. People can reach Special Agent Ira Jay Whitfield at 256-603-9032 or Special Agent Tim Mathews at 256-845-0465.

People can also reach DeKalb County Sheriff’s Investigator Craig White at 256-845-3801.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or at tjett@timesfreepress.com.

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