Where’s The Beef?

Every December, the ranching staff at a Texas Panhandle dairy farm owned by the Braum’s burgers-and-ice-cream chain conducts an audit of its cattle herd. Most years, the audit is nothing more than a bland bookkeeping exercise, the i-dotting and t-crossing of maintaining a 38-square-mile ranch on the Texas-Oklahoma border. But last year, as Braum’s auditors began to count their herd, they quickly realized something was amiss. Over the next two months, the Braum’s staff checked and re-checked their ledgers. They talked with neighbors at nearby ranches to ask if they’d seen anything unusual. They queried cowboys and ranch hands to find out if anyone had noticed a strange set of tire tracks, or a large hole in a fence, or a suspicious person or persons lurking on the grounds. Only after they’d ruled out a silly accounting error or a simple case of some errant animals did they call the law enforcement arm of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. They reported what they’d feared from the start: 1,121 unbranded steer calves had been stolen, making it among the largest cattle thefts that anyone could remember.

The logistics of pulling off a heist of this size were straight out of “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” Braum’s had found that the stolen calves weighed between 300 and 750 pounds, meaning that the combined lot would likely have tipped the scales at over 500,000 pounds. Texas Monthly’s John Nova Lomax estimated that it would have taken more than 30 cattle trailers, each 36 feet long, to haul off the animals, and it insulted logic to imagine that a fleet of massive farm vehicles would have evaded detection. An inside job seemed possible. Unscrupulous ranch hands have been stealing their bosses’ cattle for centuries, making off with a few head and then claiming that the animals wandered off or died. To date, no one has been fingered, and the TSCRA anticipates the investigation may still be months away from a conclusion — if it ever comes to one.

Regardless of what happened to over a thousand huge, smelly, bleating creatures, it was a costly loss. With cattle prices at near-record heights, early estimates of the heist pegged the value of the stolen animals at $1.4 million. Less than a decade ago, the same thousand-plus cattle would have netted only about$500,000. And the Braum’s theft was hardly an isolated incident. In March 2014, CBS Money Watch declared “a meth-fueled return of cattle rustling.” Last November, NPR’s Planet Money investigated a new “crime wave in the West … cattle theft.” And just last month, Al Jazeera America announced that “drought across the U.S. has driven up the price of beef and made livestock a tempting target for theft.”

News of a surge in cattle theft hasn’t caused a wave of hysteria among ranchers, but they’ve responded with extra vigilance. The TSCRA’s executive director of law enforcement, Larry Gray, told me that over the past several months, more and more ranchers have been calling to find out where they can obtain branding irons — the most basic theft deterrent — and some have considered far more expensive solutions like security cameras and livestock insurance. In an industry in which unlocked gates and handshake deals are the norm, such measures would have been considered anathema to many ranchers not too long ago. But the times have changed. “They realize how valuable a commodity they have,” Gray said.

When law enforcement officials talk about the rise of cattle theft, they usually start with the shrinking size of the U.S. herd. In January 2007, the total domestic cattle population was 97 million head, its cyclical peak, but over the next several years, as the cost of fertilizer, fuel and feed rose and the price of beef remained low, ranchers began to slowly sell off more of their animals to slaughter. Then Mother Nature got involved. A crippling drought began in October 2010 that devastated Texas and other Southwestern states, and suddenly there was hardly enough grass or water to maintain even a viable cattle ranch. Ranchers responded by drastically culling their herds, and by January 2014, the U.S. cattle population totaled 88.5 million head, the lowest figure since 1952. By that point, cattle prices had nearly doubled.

Over the past year, as the worst of the Texas drought has passed, ranchers have set out to rebuild their herds. The U.S. cattle population rose 1 percent over the course of 2014 and as of January numbered 89.8 million head. But because rebuilding a herd requires slaughtering many fewer animals and thus putting fewer of them on the market, the price of cattle actually rose more dramatically. A steer that sold for an average of $1.87 per pound in mid-January of 2014 was selling for$2.83 per pound a year later. That’s a 12-month increase of over 50 percent, the single biggest annual rise since 2000.

Beef prices have followed suit, if not quite as much as cattle prices. Over the seven years between January 2007 and January 2014, the price of wholesale beef rose 28 percent. It rose nearly the same percentage in just the 14 months after that.

In certain sectors of the market, the price increase has been even more dramatic. Brisket, the essential cut of Texas barbecue, has more or less supernovaed. In January 2007, a wholesale brisket cost $1.37 per pound. By January 2014, the price for the same cut had risen to$2.26 per pound, a seven-year increase of 65 percent. By January 2015, it had leapt to \$3.52 per pound, a single year increase of 56 percent.

Seeing the wild spike of beef prices and reading the headlines about the return of cattle theft might lead one to conclude that cattle rustlers, as susceptible to economic incentives as the rest of us, had taken stock of the market and decided to go on a crime wave. If that were the case, you’d imagine their wave would have begun slowly in 2007 and risen to epidemic proportions over the course of 2014.

But data provided by the TSCRA, which oversees livestock theft investigations in both Texas and Oklahoma, tells a far more complicated story.

In 2008, 6,392 head of livestock, most of them cattle, were reported stolen or missing to the TSCRA, and by 2012, that number had risen to 10,446 even though the Texas Legislature passed a bill in 2009 to make the theft of even a single cow punishable by up to 10 years in prison. But in 2013, the number of stolen and missing animals dropped by nearly half, to 5,286 even as cattle prices continued to increase. In 2014, as cattle prices skyrocketed, thefts started to rise again. And in mid-March, when I spoke with Gray, he said this trend was continuing in 2015. “It’s not just Texas; it’s all over,” he said. “I just got back from a conference in Reno, Nevada, of the Western States Livestock Investigators Association, and virtually all the states are seeing an increase.”

Still, the fluctuating numbers make it hard to draw a neat conclusion. Cattle thefts decreased from 2012 to 2013 as cattle prices increased, and cattle thefts increased from 2013 to 2014 as cattle prices increased. Gray told me that he believed the price surge was the principal cause of the past year’s uptick in theft, but he pointed to other factors — peculiarities of rancher behavior and the cattle industry itself — that had driven the number up and down over the past decade.

But I wasn’t going to understand all of that by looking at one relatively incomplete chart of theft statistics. It would only make sense if I went out into the field and learned a little about how cattle were stolen and cattle crimes were solved.

Two months before news of the Braum’s heist broke, I was sitting shotgun in a Ford F-150 being driven by Doug Hutchison, one of 30 state-licensed TSCRA special rangers. Hutchison more than looks the part. He stands 6 feet 7 inches tall, favors starched button-downs and Wrangler jeans, carries a Colt .45 with a mammoth-ivory handle, and tops his towering frame with a custom-made, off-white cowboy hat.

“We try to adhere to a ranger dress code,” he told me as we wended our way through the backroads of Williamson County, in Central Texas. “No mustaches, no beards. You can’t wear a black hat. Bad guys wear black hats. It’s an old Western thing.”

Texas, by far the largest cattle-producing state in the nation, has long been the hot spot for rustling, and the TSCRA has a 138-year history of trying to deter it. Established in 1877 by a group of fed-up ranchers in the North Texas town of Graham, the TSCRA’s early days were as Wild West as you’d imagine, with tales of shootouts and chases on horseback and high-plains justice. Now, even with Texas’s stricter cattle theft penalties, first-time offenders usually get a probated sentence rather than a town-square hanging, and the TSCRA’s rangers almost never draw their guns.

To catch cattle rustlers, Hutchison relies on tools both modern and primitive. The TSCRA maintains an online database of over 100,000 brands across Texas’s 254 counties, and much of Hutchison’s job consists of talking with the TSCRA’s brand inspectors and sussing out whether a particular cow with a particular brand that sold at a particular livestock auction really belonged to its seller. Sometimes, though, Hutchison takes to the field in the style of his 19th-century forebears, riding out into the country (in his Ford F-150, alas, not on a palomino colt), grabbing a pair of Bushnells off his dashboard, and scanning a vast expanse of pasture to find a calf or two that have been reported missing.

Hutchison told me that he’d caught all kinds of cattle thieves in his eight years as a special ranger. There are the inside jobs — the daywork cowboys who discretely “funnel one or two of ’em out the back gate,” Hutchison said. And there are the small-time crooks — some addicts, some merely opportunists — who drive around rural backroads on a full-moon night searching for a few cows who happen to be resting near an easily snipped fence. And then there are a few semi-legendary cattle rustlers who steal animals by the dozens — or more. There was Roddy Dean Pippin, who fancied himself an Old West Robin Hood, and Jerome Heath Novak, a bad seed from a prominent Texas ranching family who was caught in 2006 after multiple cattle thefts (including from the Brazoria County ranch of Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan), only to start rustling again after his release from prison. More recently, in 2011, serial rustler Carl Wade Curry was sentenced to 99 years in prison for stealing more than 400 head.

Hutchison works out of the Central Texas city of Georgetown and investigates cattle thefts across a nine-county area that includes Austin and much of its environs, the perfect place to observe the effects of both the cattle and beef price surge. Making twice weekly visits to the area’s livestock sale barns, Hutchison has seen cattle sell for more and more. And driving past many of the famous barbecue purveyors in Texas almost as often — places like Kreuz Market in Lockhart and Snow’s BBQ in Lexington — he’s seen brisket prices go up and up and, in many cases, the lines of pit-smoke-lovers only getting longer. (If there’s one thing that Austin-area barbecue restaurants prove, it’s that smoked-meat lovers are willing to wait in lines of any length regardless of the cost.)

What Hutchison hadn’t observed is a similarly steady uptick of thefts. He told me that he was investigating the disappearance of fewer animals than he had been a few years earlier, and he theorized that there were a couple of reasons for the drop-off. The first was simple: There were simply fewer cattle in Texas and thus fewer cattle to steal. The second was a behavioral reaction to the low herd sizes and the high prices: Ranchers were protecting their animals more vigilantly than before. “When the numbers [of cattle] are as few as they are and [the prices] are as high as they are, I think people are really watching,” Hutchison said.

When I asked Gray why thefts had dropped so precipitously between 2012 and 2013, he chalked it up to a decrease in a particular white-collar variety of cattle theft. During the drought years, Gray said, the TSCRA saw a surge of cases in which ranchers who bought their cattle with borrowed money would get desperate for cash and sell off their animals — in many instances, hundreds of them — while a bank still held a lien. If the bank checked up on those animals and found that they were nowhere to be found, it would pursue a case against the rancher and notify the TSCRA of the missing cattle. Then it would be the job of special rangers like Hutchison to try to track down the illegally sold merchandise.

In 2011 and 2012, when the drought was at its worst, the TSCRA was seeing a lot of these cases. “Our special rangers just about have to be accountants to figure those out,” Gray told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. In 2013, when the cattle industry began to rebound with improving conditions and rising prices, the TSCRA began to see many fewer of these cases, Gray said, driving overall theft numbers down.

Taken together, the data and the on-the-ground observations of Gray and Hutchison create a varied picture of the relationship between price and cattle-theft numbers. High prices might very well incentivize cattle theft, as Gray has said, but they’re seemingly just as likely to incentivize ranchers to try to deter cattle theft. And high prices and low cattle numbers mean that the ranchers who managed to maintain their herds during the worst of the drought now have booming businesses and are less likely to risk defrauding their banks by selling off hundreds of animals that they don’t own. Are we living through a cattle theft epidemic? The overall number of thefts — still lower than they were in the pre-drought year of 2009 — hardly suggest that. But it’s possible that high cattle prices are driving theft, and if they are, they’re most likely driving the numbers both upward and downward.

Still, whether or not cattle thieves are the new scourge of the West, there’s no doubt that as long as cattle prices remain high, protecting the herd will be a priority. And to do that, ranchers have relatively few solutions. It’s common to lock up cattle in a pen for the night, but all it takes is a pair of bolt cutters to get around that. And installing surveillance equipment across an entire pasture would be a very expensive proposition, especially on a 38-square-mile expanse like the Braum’s ranch.

The only tested solution — the one that the TSCRA tries to impress on all its member ranches — is an ancient one: cattle branding. “I try to stress that to the people out here,” Hutchison told me. “Cattle are much less likely to be stolen if they’re branded. In a sense, it’s like a VIN number on a car. These thieves know the cow business, and they know they’re going to get caught if they try to sell branded cattle. So if they see branded cattle, a lot of times, they’ll just go down the road to the next ranch where they’re not branded. You don’t want to be that guy.” Not one of the 1,121 missing Braum’s calves had a brand.

A few years back, Hutchison said, some ranchers started to favor installing microchips in their cattle over using the old branding method. It sounded like a smart, information-age solution. With an implanted microchip, a cow could not only be traced to its owner, but other information — age, place of birth, number of calves it had borne — could be embedded as well. If a brand is like a VIN number, then a microchip is really like a VIN number. But it’s not up to the task, Hutchison said. Texas’s livestock sale barns are set up to register brands, not microchip tags, and when Hutchison takes to the ranchlands of Texas, his binoculars — not some bar-code scanner — remain his most indispensible tool. And those Bushnells only work if Hutchison can stare a mile or two in the distance and see the monogrammed symbol of a particular rancher screaming out in large font from an animal’s shoulder or hip.

It’s a delightful irony that branding — a technology that dates to ancient Egypt — is the best way to deter cattle theft in 2015. We may or may not be living through a new era of cattle rustling, but it’s hard for a rancher not to take threats seriously, especially when over 1,000 large animals could disappear from a corporate ranch without a trace in an era of unprecedented interconnectivity and surveillance. And the solution is so simple. Passing a field of unmarked cows, Hutchison said: “If those cattle are not branded — my gosh, how do you work something like that?”

In some ways, the TSCRA has gone high-tech with its vast online network of buyers and sellers. But at least for now, every cattle cop would take a big brand over Big Data.

Eric Benson is a journalist living in Austin. His work has been published in Texas Monthly, The New York Times Magazine and Grantland.

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