In difficult economic times, it's not uncommon for people to turn to desperate measures to support themselves. What else could explain the sudden resurgence of cattle rustling in Utah and other prime ranching regions? Once thought consigned to America's pioneering past, cattle theft is once again becoming an increasingly pressing issue for many ranchers.

If your operation hasn't been personally affected yet, it may just be a matter of time. A range of both social and economic factors has created ideal conditions for opportunistic cattle thieves around the country. Here's what you can do to protect yourself.


The roots of the current cattle rustling epidemic can be traced back to 2007, when American beef production reached a cyclical peak of 97 million head. Since then, rising food and fertilizer costs, coupled with extended droughts in many parts of the country, caused ranchers the start culling their herds. As a result, in 2014 total cattle stocks nationwide dipped to just 89.8 million, their lowest number since 1952.

A scarcity of cattle drove up the price of beef, creating a natural incentive for theft. A growing number of former ranch workers, who had been laid off or denied employment due to the sagging economy, was created. These workers not only had the motivation, but also the insider's knowledge necessary to orchestrate or abet a heist. In short, the current situation was effectively the result of a "perfect stormÀ of factors, each of which built on the other to create the means and the motivation for an increase in cattle rustling.

The Scope of the Problem

While there's no data available about the number of cattle thefts nationwide, evidence at the state level points to a growing trend in many regions. The Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA) — one of the largest trade associations in the country — received over 10,000 complaints of stolen cattle or other livestock in 2012, an increase of more than 40% over 2008 levels. Though that number dropped in following years, recent data show it rising once again. The problem has become so severe that the TSCRA successfully lobbied Texas' state congress to raise the penalties for those convicted of the theft of even a single cow to up to 10 years in prison.

Similar trends have been noted throughout the so-called Beef Belt, the area encompassing not only Texas and Oklahoma but also California, Kansas, Nebraska and other states where large ranching operations, often with absentee owners and lax security standards, are common. In these regions and beyond, not only are overall numbers increasing, but anecdotal evidence suggests that rustlers are going after not just a small handful of cattle, but often tens or even hundreds of animals at a time.

Preventing Cattle Rustling: What You Can Do

Cattle rustling and other livestock theft may be on the rise, but that doesn't mean ranchers are powerless to stop it. There are a number of easy steps you can take today to improve the safety of your herd and your other valuable assets:

  • Secure your perimeter. Most cattle thefts are crimes of opportunity, facilitated by a rancher's own negligence. Many rustlers get discouraged easily and will move on if they encounter an obstacle. Be sure your locks are locked every night and your fences are well maintained. If you don't already have a dog, you may wish to train one to patrol the area at night.
  • Keep up-to-date records. Many cattle thefts happen one or two animals at a time, slowly depleting your herd over the course of weeks or months. If you are proactive about counting your stocks every night, you'll know instantly when a theft has occurred and can take appropriate action.
  • Report suspicious activity. Even if it isn't occurring on your property, if you see something that seems out of place, contact your local police or sheriff department and ask them to investigate. At worst, a simple misunderstanding can be cleared up quickly. At best, your vigilance has not only prevented a theft, but it has also deterred other rustlers from attempting something on your property.
  • Improve welfare standards. Animals that are less stressed are less likely to run off and fall victim to opportunistic rustling. Using proper handling equipment that minimizes distractions is an important step in any ranching operation.
  • Identify your property. Brand or tag your animals, and put distinct identifying information on all saddles, tack and other equipment. That way, if you are the victim of a theft, catching the perpetrator and getting your property returned to you will be much easier.

Cattle Rusting in Context: Utah's Challenges and Opportunities

Utah provides a great example of both the difficulties of preventing cattle rustling and the role that partnerships with government agencies can play in overcoming them. In 2013, cattle rustling in Utah had reached record levels, with over 720 animals reported missing over the course of the year. While these numbers are a fair bit smaller than Texas and Oklahoma's, thieves were getting more brazen, often stealing entire trailers of cattle at once, costing ranchers tens of thousands of dollars in losses.

To combat this, the state's Livestock Inspection Bureau began patrolling rural areas more aggressively and working with ranchers to educate staff on proper branding and recordkeeping procedures. The Bureau also worked to make themselves more visible, painting their vehicles to be easily identifiable from afar. As a result of these efforts, not only did cattle rustling in Utah drop significantly, but greater numbers of stolen animals were returned to their owners. Recognizing these efforts, in 2016 the Bureau was awarded the Governor's Award for Excellence for Outstanding Public Service.

Next Steps for Cattle Ranchers

The success of the Livestock Inspection Bureau in reducing the impact of cattle rustling in Utah highlights the need for ranchers to partner with government agencies. Ultimately, cattle rustling is not a problem that affects individual operations — it's one that affects the entire industry and can only be combatted by working together. If you don't have proactive government partners working in your area, consider teaming up with your neighbors to share resources and improve surveillance and reporting.

Cattle rustling in Utah and beyond is a solvable problem. To learn more about how Arrowquip products can help make your animals safer and mitigate the risk of loss, contact a representative in your area.