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Where’s the Beef?

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?”

“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.

 

“These are all the registered brands in the state,” he says, thumping it onto the table. “This is our first line of defense against rustlers.”

Along the left edge of the pages are the hieroglyphics of cattle. Taylor says that cattle branding is an ancient art that goes back to the Egyptians. There’s biblical evidence that Jacob branded his livestock. When the first missionaries arrived in California, they brought the practice with them. The first brand in the state, a “D” with a “$” woven through its upright bolt, is dated to 1769 and belongs to the San Diego de Algala Mission.

“It’s not alphabetical,” says Taylor, “it’s brand-a-betical.”

The branding alphabet, at least in concept, is among the oldest written languages in use. In 1940, Oren Arnold and John P. Hale published Hot Irons, a history of the practice, which explains that brands are read from top to bottom and left to right. Letters make their way clockwise around the dial. An upright letter is called “upright”; one tilted slightly to the right

is known as “leaning”; a horizontal letter is “lazy”; next is “leaning and inverted,” then “inverted,” then “inverted reversed” and so on. Brands can also be “hanging,” “combined” or “connected.” The letters should be spaced about an inch apart and should be readable from a hundred feet or so for purposes of easy identification.

Traditionally, brands were registered county by county, a practice that is still in effect in libertarian cattle lands like Montana and Texas. In 1917, California decided to combat cattle rustling by establishing a statewide brand registry. It was an obvious but uncommon step. Today, there are 23,100 registered brands in the state, with the rate of addition and attrition roughly constant, at 900 a year.

In the six millennia since the Egyptians began branding cattle, mankind has never come up with a better solution to animal identification. But keeping cattle straight has gotten trickier as modern cattle ranching has become a specialized business, with feedlots in one part of the country and roaming lands in another. These days, animals move around quite a lot. Every time a cow is shipped, whether it’s sold or simply sent to greener pastures for the dry summer months, paperwork is required. This is where brand identifiers come into play. Ranchers pay a dollar a head for such oversight, and anyone who tries to ship or sell cattle without the official forms is fined.

 

For a closer look at how the Rural Crimes Prevention Task Force works, I jump into John Suther’s pickup truck and head to the Cattlemen’s Livestock Auction in Galt, California. Suther is an affable man, thick of wrist and paunch, with a bushy mustache and a rancher’s history. His father was the state’s veterinarian, and Suther grew up around animals. He worked at an auction yard for 17 years before joining the task force and becoming the state’s top cattle cop.

As we drive south from Sacramento, office buildings recede from the roadside and then disappear altogether as the horizon opens up into empty range. Cattle country is dry, ruthless, and smells both musky and feral. Suther tells me that calves are typically worth about $500 each and that 70 percent of rustling is employees stealing from employers.

“They know how the system works, they know how to steal and where to sell.”

The other 30 percent, says Suther, “is neighbor stealing from neighbor or people stealing food.

“Occasionally, we find a dead cow in a field, well-butchered.”

“Well-butchered?”

“Yeah, you know, with the choice cuts removed.”

The task force locates around 2,500 head of cattle a year that have wandered from their range into neighboring ranges and return them without fuss or problem. But both beef prices and dairy prices are higher than they’ve ever been, and temptation seems to be getting the best of people.

Over a one-week span in early July, the Rural Crimes Prevention Task Force broke three cases. The first involved a man who had stolen 20-day-old calves (he had stolen them in twos and threes by, literally, throwing them in the trunk of his Chevy Lumina). The second was a pair of 18-year-olds stealing 26 beef cows the old-fashioned way — they rode horses onto the range in the middle of the night, roped the cows and dragged them back to a trailer. And the third involved a calf runner, the term for a person whose job it is to transport newborn dairy calves to the ranches where they’ll be raised. “This guy was picking up a load and dropping off half loads,” says Suther. “The missing cows were ending up back on his ranch. We don’t have a final number, but we think he’s made off with between 30 and 50 calves.”

 

We turn off the freeway and pull into a gravel parking lot packed with cattle trailers, horse trailers, shiny pickups with flames painted on the hood, and others not as shiny or as flame-painted. Beyond the parking lot is the Galt Yard, which covers an area nearly the size of a football field and is mostly just an enormous tin roof, raised up by wooden poles. On one side of the roof are holding pens, and on the other is the auction house. Connecting the two is a giant maze of wooden fences rising out of an oozing quagmire of dry dirt, cow shit and sucking mud. Trailers unload at one end of the maze, and the buying and selling take place at the other end. In between, on a typical day, are 500 head of cattle waiting to be sold. A brand inspector is the first thing that greets the heads as they enter the shoots.

Because there is nothing to stop a neighbor from altering a brand to match his own, cattlemen organized into associations (like the California Cattlemen’s Association) and began hiring brand inspectors whose job was both to be the highest authority when rustling is alleged and, in cases of undisputed rustling, to prevent lynchings and to involve courts of law. Today’s inspector is another affable, plaid-clad, buckle-laden cowpoke, named Roger Mahon. As cattle come off the trailer, Mahon counts heads, reads brands and checks everything against a stack of yellow papers in his hand.

“Bills of sale,” he says. “Everyone calls them yellow slips. They tell you almost everything you need to know: who owns the cattle, where they’re from, where they’re going, who hauled them, how many head there are.”

“How often do you find animals that don’t match their yellow slips?”

“We can go awhile and find nothing, then we’ll find four or five in a day. At least once a week we find something that doesn’t belong. Yesterday, we got three mysteries.”

I stand on one side of the fence and watch. Max Olvera, the yard manager and one of America’s legendary cattle auctioneers, walks over to chat.

“Nah, cattle rustling’s not much of a problem,” he says, before I ask. “We got brand inspectors now. Sure, you find the occasional ranch butcher job. There are bad eggs everywhere, but it’s not much of a problem.”

And then he answers another question I haven’t asked.

“We don’t have a problem with mad cow either. That cow they found up in Washington. Well, they found that cow. That tells you the system works.”

After Olvera leaves, Mahon finds a few new mysteries: a couple of newborn calves that shouldn’t have a brand anywhere, but instead have an “E/L” on their right hip. He goes through the paperwork slowly, trying to figure things out. On each slip, printed in bold letters, are the words “God Bless America.” In the end, he comes up empty-handed, and walks over to the owner to explain the situation. The conversation is casual, but tense. The owner assures him he has the right paperwork, that he just forgot it at home. Mahon writes down his fax number and tells the guy to get it to him tonight.

Later, I ask Mahon if he thinks the cattle were stolen.

“Did you get a look at that old fart?” says Mahon. “I doubt he’s the type.”

Driving with Suther back to Sacramento, I notice how little range is left here. Strip malls sit on the edges of tired fields; fast-food restaurants are pushing out the things that make fast food possible. In the distance are dilapidated barns and broken fences, what writer Rob Schultheis called “the hidden West” — the desiccated vestiges of the old ways. It dawns on me that the reason the Egyptians must have invented branding was because rustling was a problem in Pharaoh’s time as well. Somewhere out here are perpetrators of a crime as old as crime itself.

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