By Amy Bickel The Hutchinson News firstname.lastname@example.org
It's not the image out of an Old West movie - where the sheriff hunts down rustlers on the open range and hangs them from the nearest tree.
Today's cattle thieves are far different in an era of barbed wire, good roads and big trucks. The bounty, however, is the same as they purloin thousands of dollars worth of loot by way of beef.
For instance, last month, thieves came with trucks in the middle of the night to a feed yard near Kismet, loaded up 20 head and left nothing behind but tire tracks.
Moreover, no one noticed anything unusual on this section of paved county roadway as they drove by. And in this part of the state, where hundreds of thousands of cattle are in a 100-mile radius, the sight of cattle trucks rumbling down the highway is commonplace - no matter the time of day.
"We have no one in custody, we have nothing," said Ryan McVey, with the Seward County Sheriff's Department, which has been investigating the feedlot's case. "They didn't have brands on them and the ear tags are no big deal to get rid of."
For Seward County, it is the first big case of missing cattle in several years. However, it comes amid a rush of thefts across America's midsection as the livestock market continues to rise.
Since January, at least 10 cases have been funneled through a Sedgwick County-based law enforcement agriculture alert program, or the Construction, Livestock, Information Network, and many more have gone unreported by counties not in the program.
"Higher prices are spurring it," said McVey, noting his case equaled nearly $25,000. "It's like the copper thefts. When the price is down, you don't have as many thefts.
"For someone with a little cattle knowledge, it's easy money," he said.
For the past several months, Sedgwick County Deputy Sheriff Joel Blogref, who runs the Kansas rural livestock theft network, has watched as report after report has came through his database.
There is a definite uptick, he said, adding that the thefts aren't isolated to one area of the state.
Incidents stretch from Seward and Hamilton counties to Neosho and Marshall counties. Several reports have come out of Missouri, as well, where a rash of thefts is occurring.
In one instance in Missouri, about 50 miles east of the Kansas line, it appeared someone on horseback rounded up five cow/calf pairs in late March. Two months earlier, a gooseneck trailer was stolen from a rancher, which was used to steal his neighbor's cattle.
In Kansas, a Kingman County cattle case where five head were stolen will go to court in July. Law enforcement officers were able to track the cattle to an El Dorado sale barn.
Others, however, aren't so lucky.
The Kansas Livestock Association offered a $2,500 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever stole 15 cattle from a member's Neosho County pasture in December.
KLA spokesman Todd Domer said very few rewards are ever given.
"A lot of times, these cattle aren't ever recovered," he said. "It just doesn't happen very often."
Syracuse Commission Co. manager Terry DeVaughan doesn't suspect he'll ever see the 31 head of cattle stolen from his Hamilton County sale barn, either. Cows were taken from the sale barn's pens between midnight and 6 a.m. June 2 in the state's latest rustling case.
He said it was the first time in his 35 years in the business that cattle have been stolen from the sale barn.
"They're probably destined for a packing house," he said, adding the cattle were most likely already sold by now and ground into hamburger.
DeVaughan said he thought it would help if Kansas was a brand state.
"You can quote me on that," he said.
Unlike many larger cattle-producing states like Texas, Kansas does not have a brand law - meaning that cattle producers are not required to register brands with the state or even brand their livestock, for that matter.
Not having to register does save ranchers and hobby producers from paying fees to the state, said Dustin Cooke, an investigator with the Kingman County Sheriff's Department who has had two cases in the county in the past six months.
Moreover, he said, most sale barns aren't required to verify ownership of unbranded cattle, which makes it easy for rustlers to drop of a load and have it sell quickly.
"It's quick cash," Cooke said. "You can steal them in the middle of the night and probably have them sold by 2 p.m. the next afternoon."
Only three Kansas counties - Wichita, Kearny and Hamilton - have brand inspection programs through county option, said Kansas Livestock Commissioner Bill Brown. Five livestock markets also do brand inspection, but all are in the northwest quarter of Kansas.
While not mandatory, the Kansas Animal Health Department maintains a database of 17,500 registered brands, which has been growing by about 400 to 500 brands a year, Brown said. Yet, compared to brand states like Colorado, which has 65 brand inspectors, Kansas has just six and all are part time.
"I haven't gotten any feedback that Kansas should become a brand state," he said, but added, "I'm sure there are people that think we should be a brand state and if there is a need for that, I'm sure the livestock community will address it."
Cooke said more ranchers are interested in branding and a few programs in eastern Kansas on the topic have been popular. He plans to help put on another branding class in Kansas sometime this summer.
Branding, whether by hot iron just as the cowboys of old use to do it or by the more modern freeze-branding - does serve as one of the best methods of locating stolen as well as strayed livestock, he said.
He knows so first hand.
When 19 head of heifers and steers, valued at nearly $18,000, were stolen in the county last month, Cooke sent out the information and a photo of the brand across the state livestock information network and to media.
Within 24 hours, the cattle mysteriously showed up at the rancher's pens.
"It was well after dark when he heard cattle bawling, and they were standing outside," he said, crediting the media and the spread of the case through the state's agriculture network for the successful return.
He suspects whoever took the livestock became nervous after the news coverage. Somehow, anyway, they arrived safely home.
"Any time you have brands on cattle, it is more difficult to steal, sell and make a profit on that without being caught," he said. "From the investigation side, branding benefits us. If we don't' have those brands, it is a long shot. Ear tags don't matter because they are removable."
For now, Seward County's McVey said, producers just need to be proactive. For instance, while not all operations can afford cameras, some ranchers have gotten creative and are purchasing hunting trail cameras, which catch movement.
He also said residents and operators alike should be mindful of what is going on around them.
"If you see something that just doesn't look right, let us know," he said.
For, while the open range is gone, as well as roping up an outlaw to the nearest tree, a red-handed culprit could see a stiff fine, as well as prison time.