Cattle rustling, associated with Western movies and stories from frontier days, is increasing in Kentucky, cattlemen say, as record prices entice thieves in the biggest beef cattle state east of the Mississippi River.
Lincoln County farmer Boyd Coleman lost about $30,000 worth of cattle in a recent theft. That doesn't count the $15,000 a year he'd have received from selling the cow's offspring in future years.
"I've lost income for years down the road," he said.
About a half dozen incidents have been reported in Lincoln County since May, said Dan Grigson, the agricultural agent there for the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension.
Grigson said the recent level of thefts is far worse than the one or two annual cases he'd typically hear about over the past 25 years.
"Farmers are constantly having things stolen - tools, chainsaws, four-wheelers - that's been going on for 10 years pretty heavy," Grigson said. "... It's gone to the next level when you start taking cows."
There's no central collection of cattle theft statistics in Kentucky, and rustling sometimes goes unreported because in small numbers it could be attributed to an animal wandering off. But word spreads among cattle farmers when the numbers are larger.
Steve Downs, a Marion County cattleman and president of the Kentucky Cattlemen's Association, said he heard about a theft over the weekend in neighboring Washington County where six steers and a mature Angus bull were stolen.
"It's getting too close to home over here," he said.
Cattle industry officials say the historic prices make rustling a threat that producers would do well not to ignore.
"Prices are so high that (rustling) is something farmers should be aware of, especially those that live a distance from their cattle or have cattle in places that are easy for someone to get in and out of," said UK agricultural economist Kenny Burdine, who specializes in livestock.
Several factors are behind those prices, Burdine said, including Southwestern droughts the last several years that have forced the culling of herds, resulting in higher demand.
"I have never seen feeder cattle and calf prices this high," Burdine said.
Many cows sell for about $1,500 at current prices, double the price of five years ago, Grigson said. Drought in big cattle states - particularly Texas - along with higher costs for grain to feed cattle have figured into the price increase.
"It doesn't take very many calves to add up to a whole lot of money," Grigson said.
Cattle has grown in importance to Kentucky agriculture as tobacco decreased.
Downs said he's surprised there aren't more cases because of the current prices.
"I guess they figured that (since) cattle's where the money is now, we'll start stealing cattle," Downs said. "Pretty good mark up on 'em. Just got to load 'em up and sell 'em."
Branding cattle has largely fallen out of favor in Kentucky, so stockyards don't have a practical way of knowing whether the seller actually owns the cows.
Shelby County cattleman Rondal Dawson said he isn't worried about his cattle being stolen since he lives in a remote area and his home is close to the cattle - though he isn't surprised it's occurring because of the financial incentive.
"They could probably take a feed bucket and steal mine," he said, joking that the livestock would follow the food.
Specialists are urging farmers to be cautious and consider branding, still the most practical identification method available. Attaching an identification tag to the cow's ear is more common in Kentucky than burning the farmer's identification into the cow's hide. But tagging isn't foolproof, however, because tags can be cut off.
One of the ironies of the crime is that it takes some wherewithal - experience dealing with cattle and a truck - to pull off.
"These are people who know how to handle cattle," Grigson said. "They're used to loading cattle on trucks or trailers or whatever."
For Coleman, whose cattle were taken, there's a sense of betrayal.
The theft of his cattle occurred while he spent about 10 days at a Lexington hospital with his brother who was injured in a wreck and ultimately died. Coleman's cattle were taken from a farm with no home on it and, he suspects, by someone who knew what his situation was.
"That's the thing that hurt worse," he said.
When he got back to the farm, he noticed a dented gate and kept coming up short when he counted cattle. He noticed some cows had stopped producing milk because they didn't have a calf nursing. That's when he notified authorities.
More than 20 cows and calves were gone.
The one silver lining for Coleman is he's had insurance on his herd for the past 18 years. Observers recommend cattlemen consider insuring their herd in addition to common-sense measures such as talking to neighbors about unusual sightings, like strange vehicles on each other's farms.
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