The hall at the State Experiment Station is packed to overflowing and the crowd is spilling into the hallways. Tempers are running high as cattlemen, law enforcement officials, and concerned community members search for a solution to a problem that is draining many cattle operations and their communities: cattle rustlers.
“Can’t we just shoot them?” One brave soul puts forth, only to be told that cattle are considered property and thus not protected under a farmer’s right to self defense. But when a rustler cuts down fences and crosses several pastures to steal tens of thousands of dollars worth of cattle, leaving a farmer with no way to provide for his family, hard-pressed cattlemen can’t be faulted for wondering what it would be if not self defense.
Unfortunately, the problem is only likely to get worse. With beef prices already high and last October’s snowstorm killing thousands of cattle, theft has been on the rise. The Livestock Marketing Association’s Missing Livestock page has a number of cattle thefts listed every week, including reports from all over Iowa and Missouri. In one particularly heartbreaking incident, an Iowa cattleman returned home from a stay in the hospital to find he had been robbed of 27 head of cattle.
The question on everyone’s minds is: What can cattlemen, local communities, and law enforcement do to deter cattle theft?
Rewards on the Rise
The Iowa State Sheriffs’ and Deputies’ Association, together with the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, is currently offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to either the arrest and conviction of a cattle thief or the recovery of stolen cattle.
Missouri also has a similar reward program for catching cattle thieves, but a string of cattle thefts by an organized group pushed local associations to band together and raise the stakes with a nearly $100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of cattle rustlers.
Volunteers Can Aid Local Law Enforcement
The meeting at the State Experiment Station in Mount Vernon, Missouri, mentioned above, was attended by not only Lawrence County Sheriff Brad Delay and several deputies, but also by the commander and executive officer of a new organization in the county: the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Auxiliary.
Providing additional support to the Sheriff’s Office, trained Auxiliary volunteers include school teachers, retirees, linemen, cattlemen, truck drivers, amateur radio operators, first responders, and writers. Almost all members have livestock in some capacity and over a third run cattle. Though they are not law enforcement, they work with neighborhood watch groups and provide additional eyes on the pastures and boots on the ground in times of need. The string of cattle thefts the past couple years in southwest Missouri definitely qualified as “times of need” for Lawrence County.
Auxiliary on the Job
It’s bitterly cold just before midnight in mid-February as Auxiliary members meet at a local lot to form squads to cover one-sixth of the county in a shift, about 100 square miles. Coffee is passed around as they hunch over maps in the back of an SUV, discussing which routes to cover. They break into teams and head out, communicating by radio, cell phone, and text message, depending largely on reception in different parts of the county.
They’re looking for things that are “out of place” that could indicate a herd is being targeted. Missouri Cattlemen’s Association President Jim McCann has let Lawrence County cattlemen know about the patrol and Sheriff Delay has informed dispatch and the on-shift deputies about the ongoing patrols. In uniform and bearing photo IDs issued by the sheriff, the patrols use private vehicles and their own fuel to keep an eye on the countryside.
Good for Missouri, Good for Iowa
As has already been made clear, we shouldn’t leave Iowa ranchers, farmers, and cattlemen to take the law into their own hands. A better idea is to copy Missouri’s efforts using neighborhood watches and a similar program of trained volunteers. Missouri Auxiliary members are happy to share their experiences and protocols with any interested parties.
The Grange raised its membership by 658,050 from 1873 to 1875 without the benefit of telephones or internet. Organizing rural Iowa against cattle rustling should prove far easier in this modern age and is even more needful.