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While the image of cattle rustling might conjure scenes from the Wild West, the reality is that this age-old crime continues to plague livestock producers in the modern world. With today's high cattle prices, these valuable animals have become an enticing target for thieves seeking a quick profit.

Across the United States, brand committees and livestock boards play a crucial role in helping livestock producers identify and establish ownership of their animals. These organizations also act as central points of contact for reporting missing or stolen livestock.

While the occasional wandering cow might stray from its enclosure, the scale of the issue is more significant than one might think. The numbers tell a tale of concern. In the year 2023 alone, Nebraska has reported 454 missing or stolen cattle, Montana 177, North Dakota 74, and South Dakota 71, according to official reports from each respective state.

In Wyoming, a five-year period from 2017 to 2022 saw nearly 4,000 head of livestock reported as missing, as reported by the Wyoming Livestock Board and local news outlets.

Brand inspection, a process of verifying livestock ownership, is a critical tool in tackling this issue. Changes in ownership due to sales or gifts, as well as travel across state lines, often trigger brand inspection in many states. However, even this system has its vulnerabilities.

In states with partial brand inspection areas like Nebraska and South Dakota, thieves can exploit these gaps to acquire livestock, move them out of the inspection area, and make a quick escape. CJ Fell, a criminal investigator for the Nebraska Brand Committee, emphasizes that the ease with which cattle can be loaded and transported makes this a tempting opportunity for criminals.

Timing is a significant challenge in addressing this problem. Steve True, director of the Wyoming Livestock Board, notes that by the time owners realize their cattle are missing, it might already be too late to effectively track them down.

Many states in the U.S. do not have formal livestock ownership registration systems, leaving a considerable number of livestock vulnerable to theft.

While the traditional image of cattle being loaded onto trailers for theft still holds, some criminals opt for a more gruesome approach. Thieves occasionally choose to slaughter the animals on-site, making off with valuable cuts of meat. While this type of theft is relatively infrequent, it continues to happen.

To safeguard their herds, livestock producers are advised to keep meticulous records. Utilizing a brand is a simple yet effective way to trace ownership back to its source. Without a brand, cattle become easy targets for theft.

Physical measures can also make a difference in deterring theft. Locking gates, securing pastures and corrals, and using permanent identification methods for both livestock and equipment can help mitigate the risk.

Ben Eggleston, special ranger for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA), points out that victims of agricultural theft often have some knowledge of the perpetrator. This reality adds a personal and emotional dimension to the crime.

Eggleston urges immediate reporting to authorities in case of suspected cattle theft. He emphasizes that cattle farming is often a legacy, passed down through generations, and having something stolen from this legacy is deeply personal.

As the cattle industry grapples with the challenges of modern theft, livestock producers are left to navigate a landscape of vigilance and prevention, ensuring the security of their livelihoods and the legacy of their families.