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Where’s the Beef? 

Rustling makes a comeback in California

Thursday, Aug 12 2004
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Photo by Meredith Heuer/Photonivca

I was in New Zealand recently and met an old German couple in Queenstown. We conversed in some mangle of English and German. When I told them I was from California, we had something like the following exchange:

“California ist very lickable . . . Ex-zupt Herr Terminator and ze cow wrestling.”

“Ze what?”

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“Ze cow wrestling.”

It took a while, but I finally figured out my new friends were talking about a news broadcast they heard in Germany that claimed cattle rustling, scourge of the Old West and lynchable offense in countless Westerns, was making a comeback in California because of the protein-fueled Atkins-diet craze. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. In a time of nanotechnology, Mars rovers and, especially, Jessica Simpson, cattle rustling seemed so anachronistic. Maybe they were still rustling cows in Patagonia, in the now-cleared rainforests of Brazil, in places where desperate times demanded desperate measures, but in California, in my shiny back yard? Figures I’d have to go halfway around the world to find out something like this. I had to know more.

When I got home, Benjamin Higgins, vice president of the California Cattlemen’s Association, confirmed that cattle rustling was indeed on the rise, but not in the Old West way I thought.

“People are stealing cows — but not only beef cows, they’re also stealing dairy cows,” said Higgins. “In fact, they’re mainly stealing dairy cows. Dairy replacement calves, to be exact.”

Those It’s the cheese commercials don’t lie. In 1993, California took the nation’s dairy crown from Wisconsin and never gave it back. The state’s 2,025 dairies pump milk by the megaton, and produce 1.83 billion pounds of cheese annually. It’s a $4.04 billion economic engine, and dairy cows make the whole thing run. And while there are 1.69 million dairy cows in California, lately there’s been something of a dearth.

Typically, a dairy cow spends the first two years of its life as an unmilked calf and the next three in full-scale production. After five years, production starts to slack off, so, in the words of Tom Gossard of the California Dairy Farmers Association, “McDonald’s usually gets them after that. But ranchers need to replace the loss. We used to get replacement calves from Canada. Now we don’t.”

That’s because nine months ago, the threat of mad cow disease slammed the cattle-importation portion of the Canadian border shut. “There’s a real shortage,” continued Gossard. “Milk production is way down, and prices are way up. Some people see this as an opportunity. They’re stealing dairy cows. And because of the shortage, the people who are buying them are asking fewer questions.”

Gossard points out that dairy cows have to be milked every day and fed all the time, but the calves can wander freely, so calf-raising operations tend to be farther away from the rest of the farm — making calves considerably easier to steal. And newborn calves — which are called dairy replacement calves — are often not branded immediately, so they’re harder to identify. Plus, a dairy calf can be slung over your shoulder and tossed in a car trunk — so you don’t even need a pickup to do the dirty work.

The problem also seems to be increasing slightly. In 2003, 1,101 cows were stolen in California (there are no national statistics), up from 907 stolen in 2002. In fact, cattle-rustling damages total $1.5 million a year — but that number represents only the official count of stolen cattle and does not include the cost of investigating and prosecuting these crimes, or the cost of unreported damages. And, as Ben Higgins says, “There’s probably no crime in the state that is more underreported than cattle rustling. Ranchers, especially bigger ranchers, don’t see their cows that often. And there’s a pride factor as well. Cowboys are a rugged bunch. No one wants to be thought of as a bad producer or an easy mark. The real cattle-rustling numbers are probably double or triple what’s reported.”

 

To combat the plague of cattle rustling, in 1994, the state formed the Rural Crimes Prevention Task Force, a subset of the Department of Food and Agriculture, which makes its home in a giant, gray building in Sacramento that looks like the Death Star as imagined by some Stalin-era, Soviet-bloc artist. I’m led to a nondescript office and introduced to an old cowhand named Patrick Taylor. Like most cowhands in the state, Taylor wears the uniform: a plaid button-down, a pair of Wrangler jeans with a crisp pleat ironed up the front, and a belt buckle the size of a hubcap. Taylor is the keeper of the brand, the man responsible for deciphering and cataloging the byzantine methods of cattle identification. He pulls out a book nearly twice as thick as a Bible.

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