With a federal animal identification program still in the works, various cattle producer groups are launching their own livestock tracking networks. Up to 50 such alliances have been formed, driven mostly by consumer demand for beef and the need for producers to better manage their records.
The traceability provided by animal ID systems serves a number of purposes, not the least of which is to track livestock who develop contagious and deadly diseases. But it also might serve producers plagued by an unfortunate Old West tradition. As Laurel Bower Burgmaier explains, there currently are few remedies for the problem of cattle rustling.
Ron Ragsdale, rancher: "You live in continual fear that instead of one truckload, there may be four or five truckloads. And, you get to the point with any operation where it's not big enough to support you and the thieves both."
Ron Ragsdale lives on 30,000 acre Two Rivers Ranch near Rapid City, South Dakota, where he and his business partner Jim Scull buy and sell stocker cattle. While his numbers are down this year, Ragsdale says in the past, he's had as many as 8,000 head of cattle on his land. Sprawling ranches like this one are common in South Dakota, making it harder for ranchers to monitor and protect their cattle and easier for rustlers to steal them.
Ron Ragsdale, rancher: "It's very isolated. My mailbox is eleven miles away. It's so difficult to police an operation of this size. And so it's easy for someone who has the desire and the capability to get to a point where cattle can be lured off. Trying to track them down, find them and recover them is almost an impossibility."
According to the South Dakota State Brand Board, reports of cattle theft in the state increased 300 percent from 2001 to 2002. But, South Dakota is not alone. With the high cattle prices, strong demand for beef and the continuing popularity of low-carb, high protein diets, cattle rustlers are looking to cash in all across rural America. Since 1999, Ragsdale has been a target of cattle thieves, costing him over 250,000 dollars.
Ron Ragsdale, rancher: "It takes a lot of pleasure out of the business because in an outfit like this, until these cattle are gathered off this ranch at the end of the season, you never know where you're going to be. There is another consequence that is extremely worrisome and that is the nature of criminal investigation. Usually, the first place authorities turn to is the people closest to you, which is going to be your neighbors. It puts you in a very awkward and uncomfortable position."
South Dakota is unique because the western part of the state requires branding, while the eastern part does not. In the United States, brand inspection areas are basically divided by the Missouri River, with a few exceptions.
Jerry Derr, livestock theft investigator: "That is where the loophole lies. Let's say we're here in western South Dakota, somebody could come out here on the prairie and steal a load of cattle. They could take them to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which is down in the corner of the Minnesota/Iowa border and sell them because at the livestock sales facilities there, there is nobody looking at the brand to determine ownership. The brand doesn't mean anything because there is no verification on it."
For six years, Jerry Derr served as Director of Investigations for the South Dakota State Brand Board. The State Brand Board was created in 1937 to provide livestock owners with a system of animal identification through brand registration and to ensure proper ownership of stock. While most sale barns around the country require health and ownership certificates, rustlers easily can create fake documents or lie about buying the cattle. Derr believes branding is the best method because it can't be ripped off or cut out like ear tags can. Brands are permanent.
Jerry Derr, livestock theft investigator: "Branding has always been important. It's more important now because of the bio-terrorism scare and the threat of the contamination of our food supply and the verification of ownership of livestock."
The federal government and several livestock organizations are backing a new system that would require identification for livestock. The idea is to protect animals from things like BSE, or mad-cow disease, which caused the ban of cattle imports from Canada last year. Others think it will deter rustlers.
Jerry Derr, livestock theft investigator: "I think the reason why livestock theft has been somewhat on the back burner is because it impacts just a small segment of society. But in South Dakota, let's say, the ag economy in South Dakota is about a nine billion dollar economy. So, if a producer is subjected to loss no matter what it is, then you're going to have an increased cost somewhere down the way."
Ron Ragsdale, rancher: "One question that I'm sure might arise in a viewer's mind is, "Well, why don't you insure them for theft?" And, you can insure them for theft, but in order to recover on the insurance policy, you've got to prove the theft, which means you've got to find the cattle, identify the cattle and prove the cattle were stolen. There's no way to prove the event. What you really do is just your operation has to absorb the loss is what it comes down to."
Derr says states that don't require branding stubbornly view it as another form of government regulation. Instead, he wishes they would realize how branding ensures a nationwide identification system, which might help stop cattle thieves in their tracks. Ragsdale agrees, pointing out the problem with the country's current branding system.
Ron Ragsdale, rancher: "Unless we have brand inspection everywhere, it's almost useless to have it anywhere. There has been a petition to get the east to go to the brand inspection system, but without success. And, that is generally true in the non-brand inspection areas, there is no movement to change anything in that regard.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association estimates consumer demand for beef has increased 15 percent in the past five years, which means rustlers likely will continue to target cattle ranchers. Unfortunately, the thieves rarely get caught and justice is seldom served.
Jerry Derr, livestock theft investigator: "The criminal system has always been lax on the prosecution of livestock theft because those cases are extremely difficult to prove.
Ron Ragsdale, rancher: "Certainly our experience confirms that. We have never yet recovered any animal that we could prove to be stolen or that we knew to be stolen. So far, we're batting zero in the recovery department."
For Market to Market, I'm Laurel Bower Burgmaier.