Livestock Thefts Baffle Farmers, Puzzle Police

By Patrick McCarron

Izzy Grant is a 14-year-old girl from Brownsburg who has raised goats since she could barely walk. She especially loved showing off her favorite—a pygmy goat, Sophie—at county fairs.

“I got her some little bows at the dog store,” Izzy said. “She loved them because I got them for her.”

Last summer, Izzy came home from the fair with two awards—third place for Best Costume and first place for Best Trick. Izzy loved Sophie just as she loves all of her goats.

“You get really attached to them and you can teach them really cool tricks,” she said.

But last September—just four months after Izzy received Sophie as a birthday present from her mother—the little goat went missing.

“I was in Georgia one weekend visiting my family. And then, I didn’t know when I came back home that she had gone missing.  So we looked in the fields all around us and everywhere, and called all our neighbors. And she was nowhere to be found,” Izzy said.

Izzy thinks that someone came onto her farm and stole Sophie. Larry Swisher, a 61-year-old farmer from Fairfield, also believes he’s a victim of livestock theft. Swisher says that 17 of his goats disappeared sometime between late September and early October of 2013.

Missing livestock is an occupational hazard for farmers, especially those whose fields are in rural parts of Rockbridge County and surrounding areas. But it is difficult to prove whether animals have been killed by four-legged predators or snatched by two-legged thieves. Either way, the losses can be devastating to farmers, costing them thousands of dollars.

If thieves are at work, the money is easy to make: They simply pull up a trailer to a remote field, load the animals and take off for the nearest auction, where it is difficult to prove ownership—or the lack of ownership—for many animals. With goats, it’s even easier. They’re small enough to pick up and put into the back seat of a car.

Locating missing animals and proving that they were stolen is a difficult task for police. Most farmers go weeks without checking or counting their herds. This gives thieves a head start in moving and selling stolen livestock. And when farmers fail to tag or mark their animals—which is often the case—they are nearly impossible to identify.

“About the end of September or the first week in October [2013] I noticed part of them were gone,” Swisher said. “All the mature goats were there but the yearling goats were gone.”

Swisher says the market for goats skyrockets near the end of October of every year, which meant that losing the goats cost him substantially.

“At the time they would have brought between 150 and 200 a head, so [it was] probably around a $3,000 [total] loss,” he said. 

Swisher thinks theft is the only possible explanation because yearling goats normally stick with their mothers and don’t leave the herd. He found it strange that all 17 of his missing goats were yearlings.

For that reason, he said, “I feel like someone came in there and loaded them up.”

A way of life

Raising livestock is in Swisher’s blood—his grandparents, parents and brothers were all livestock farmers. He owns several different types of animals, including cattle and goats.

It’s the same for Logan Grant, Izzy’s 20-year-old brother and the son of a cattle farmer.

“It’s a family thing,” he said. “I’ve been farming ever since I’ve been old enough to get in a truck with my dad.”

Grant remembers two instances in which he believes his family were victims of cattle theft. He also says that several bordering farms have had missing livestock, and he can’t help taking it personally.

“In a small community, everybody pretty much knows everybody,” he said. “So when it happens, it’s definitely a shock and nobody likes to see it happen.”

Last spring, one of his Angus bulls went missing. He said his family suffered a $3,500 to $4,000 loss because of it.

“An Angus bull is probably one the most expensive things you could buy,” Grant said.

“You hate to see one of them go when you’re not getting anything for it, especially.”

Grant’s father filed a police report with the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office, which investigated the complaint. Because the bull was tagged and tattooed, it was identifiable. It was eventually returned, but in sickly condition. 

“He’d been missing for two weeks and he was right there by the gate.  And it was like the sheriff had asked some questions, and I think somebody got scared, and [the bull] turned back up.  But needless to say he wasn’t in very good shape.  He had probably been starved and he didn’t look very good,” Grant said.

Four years ago, he said, four of his family’s heifers went missing. But Grant said the heifers were unmarked and difficult to identify.

“You walk in one day, and it’s 16 [cattle] instead of 20.  So, it’s just, four went up missing.  Never did recover them,” he said.

Grant says his family installed locks on all of their gates to try to prevent another robbery. And while surveillance cameras are too expensive to be an option, he said his family has good relationships with other nearby farmers and they watch out for each other.

“I know one guy who has a farm right beside where I live,” Grant said.  “He drives to our house to check on his cattle and we drive to his house.”

Grant says he believes his family is taking all of the appropriate precautions.

“It’s good to just lock your gates, check your cattle every day, count your cattle every day, and have somebody watch over the place for you. It can help out a lot,” he said.

Jim Chambers, the owner and operator of Rockingham Livestock Sales Inc., also knows the risk of losing livestock. Several months ago, five of his cows went missing. They were ready for slaughter and worth a total of $7,000.

“You take precautions,” Chambers said. “You keep all your [loading] gates locked, that type of stuff. But it happens.”

A perfect crime

Thomas Stanley, the Rockbridge County Extension Agent for the Virginia Cooperative Extension, says that current values have made cattle thefts as costly as ever to farmers.

“It’s not really common, but when it happens it can be catastrophic to an individual cattleman,” Stanley said. “Right now we’re in a period of exceptional values.”

Grey Puckett, a cattle seller from Staunton, said droughts in crucial cattle markets around the world have caused prices to increase in recent years.

“It’s a world market. And four or five years ago there was a big drought in Australia,” Puckett said. “Same thing happened [in the U.S.] the last couple years prior in Texas. … Everything was so dry.” 

Stanley said droughts decimated the worldwide supply of cattle and led to increased beef prices. The average price per pound for feeder cattle has been between $2.20 to $2.50. On average, beef cattle can weigh about 600 pounds. That means beef cattle can be worth anywhere from $1,350 to $1,500 each.

“Now we have these phenomenal prices because we have had an exceptional period of low supply.  Our cattle inventory in this country is the lowest it’s been since about 1952,” he said.

Stanley says cattle theft is the “perfect crime” because it is rare, which gives farmers little incentive to take steps to provide security for their animals.

For the sake of convenience, livestock owners like Swisher usually don’t lock their gates.

“[My animals] just run loose. I don’t lock them. I mean, the area typically is just pretty laid back, protected,” he said.

Stanley says livestock farmers often don’t own or live on the land where their animals graze, and that makes it hard for them to keep watch on their herds.

“I’m not always over there at my farm,” Swisher said. “Sometimes I might not be over there for two weeks. … It’s about five miles west of [my home], over near Brownsburg.”

Grant also knows how hard it is to keep track of animals.

“It’s hard to say who [committed the robbery] because when you’re leasing property and you’re not here all the time, you can’t guarantee that somebody took something.  It’s never a guarantee,” he said.

But Grant said he believes such thefts are premeditated.

“Most of the time, just from my experience, I’d say that somebody was watching your farm, somebody was watching your cattle, and somebody was watching you.”    

Mysteries with few clues

Botetourt County Sheriff Ronald Sprinkle says that livestock theft investigations are challenging to resolve.

“Without identifying marks it is hard to charge someone with the theft of the animal,” he said.

Sprinkle says another obstacle to solving such crimes is the distance between the farm and farmer. 

Cattle at the auction in Staunton. Photo by Bentley Boldt

When that happens, police are at a disadvantage because they often start an investigation long after the trail of evidence has gone cold.

“If someone gets a two- to three-week jump on you, it is hard to recover those animals,” Sprinkle said. “They could have already been sold again.”

But Sprinkle said police treat reports of livestock thefts like any other criminal investigation.

“Go out and take a report. Try to establish a time frame of when the animal was last seen and how much it costs,” he said.

Police urge victims to stay in touch with their local stockyards in case someone tries to sell the stolen livestock. The police also send out a notice of missing animals to local farmers—in the case an animal simply wandered on to another farm.

“You just do a thorough ground search,” Sprinkle said. “A lot of talking and looking.”

But filing the police report is the easy part.

“We went through the whole process and I’m sure [the police] tried their best,” Grant said. “But it’s not like a stolen car.”

When Chambers lost his cows, he said he didn’t bother notifying police.

“There’s no reason for it because they’re not going to be able to catch them,” he said. “It would be like finding a needle in a haystack. Once these cows are gone, they’re gone.”

Chambers said he tried to find the missing cows himself.

“All you can do is call around to local stockyards because that’s all the police are going to do anyway,” he said.

Two-legged predators

Cattle theft is relatively simple, Stanley says, because cattle-loading facilities on most farms are close to the roads.

“To make things easy and make things efficient for the cattlemen, we also wound up making it easy and efficient to the cattle thief,” he said.

Cattle thieves usually commit their robberies using a “gooseneck” trailer rig—a pickup truck with an 18- to 24-foot trailer attached. They can steal anywhere from five to 20 cattle at a time.

Almost anybody can do it, Stanley said.

“All it takes is somebody who’s nervy enough to take their truck and trailer and back into a corral that doesn’t belong to them,” he said. “Anybody with a little bit of experience with cattle can drive them into the pin and load them up.  And nobody’s ever really the wiser. And very often these cattle thefts happen in broad daylight.”

As convenient as it is to steal them, it’s just as easy to sell them at sale barns, facilities that hold weekly livestock auctions. Stanley says sellers in Virginia also usually don’t need to prove that they own the animals they bring to auction.

“To pull in rather anonymously with a truck and a trailer and unload cattle, it can largely be done, and you can pretty well go unnoticed,” he said.

Grant also said it’s hard to tell which cattle belong to whom at the stockyard.

“When you’re dealing with these stock markets, it’s nothing to see one of these heifers go through.  You can see, ‘there’s a black heifer, there’s a black heifer, there’s a black heifer.’ And if one of these heifers were to get stolen and sent through the stock market, it’s nothing really that rare,” he said.

“Pinhooking” is another danger for farmers because it is the cattle equivalent of scalping—buying and reselling for a profit. Although it is illegal in Virginia, Rockbridge County Supervisor John Higgins says it’s very common. He also says that pinhookers mislead the cattlemen from whom they purchase the animals.

“It’s always three or four guys out there in the parking lot that say, ‘Hey, your calf’s going to bring you $2 [per pound]… and it weighs 500 pounds,’” Higgins said. “But this guy’s so sharp. He knows that calf weighs 550 pounds and is going to bring in $2.15 [per pound], so he just made himself a hundred bucks!”

He said cattle owners who sell their animals before an auction are often happy to do so.

“I’m sitting there and I’ve got two calves and I need to turn them into my taxes. And I say, ‘Wait a minute, you’re going to give me cash? Give me cash!  You take those calves and be gone,’” Higgins said.

“If the market finds out, they’re going to be upset. But it happens all the time.  Then there’s no record at all,” he said. “When you mix a couple of head in with forty or fifty, it’s hard to keep track.”

Sunset on a farm in Rockbridge County. Photo by Meredith Hoffman

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Packers and Stockyard Program regulates the cattle industry. Puckett said it is powerful enough to keep most stockyards and sellers in line.

“Anyone like myself has to answer to, and the stockyard has to answer to [the Packers and Stockyard Program] and they come do audits whenever they see fit,” Puckett said.

“Everybody wants a good product, so you got people pushing to keep [the program] going because that’s their livelihood. That’s mine.”

Coyotes, the ‘usual’ suspects

While many farmers call police to report their missing livestock as stolen, Grant says, they can’t rule out coyote attacks.

He remembers watching a neighbor’s farm while the man was on vacation, and noticing that coyotes were on the prey.

“I probably carried off 15 dead sheep just from coyotes,” Grant said.

Coyotes don’t normally pose a threat to full-grown cattle, he said, but are more likely to target their young.

“Where you run into trouble with cattle is when they start calving and then you have afterbirth, and then you have baby calves.  That’s where the coyotes can really take effect and do some damage,” Grant said.

As for Izzy’s missing goat, Sophie, the family found no signs of a coyote attack.

Sheriff Blalock says Sophie’s disappearance baffles him, even though he thinks it would make sense for a coyote to go after a small, vulnerable goat.

“I’m afraid a coyote got that goat,” Blalock said. “Usually a coyote will carry it off, but [Izzy] said she checked things pretty well and usually they won’t carry them so far.  So it could be other things.”

But Swisher finds it hard to believe that coyotes were to blame for his missing goats.

“They might come and they might get one goat and take it off,” he said, “but they are not going to come in a get 17 goats all at once.”

Caroline Brady, Myers McGarry, Bentley Boldt, Hendley Badcock and Meredith Hoffman contributed to this story.

Published Dec. 18, 2014