With supply and demand driving historically high cattle prices in 2014, Oregon ranchers can expect meaty profits bringing their animals to market.

That is, if someone else doesn’t get to the herds first.

The state Department of Agriculture is reminding producers to be extra vigilant this summer watching for cattle theft from modern-day rustlers who now have more incentive than ever to steal unattended animals on the range.

“Food costs for people are generally up, which means we see a spike in poached game and field-butchered livestock,” said Rodger Huffman, ODA’s supervising brand inspector based in La Grande.

Huffman anticipates ranchers will report 400-500 missing livestock this year — of which the department estimates 20 percent may end up determined as stolen. Other types of losses could stem from weather, disease or predator attacks.

Market prices for cattle are, in some cases, more than twice the average of just a couple years ago. Demand for beef remains strong worldwide, though drought has helped whittle the U.S. cattle herd to its lowest total since 1951.

That means every calf counts, Huffman said, and every loss is a harder hit to the wallet. One ranch in Malheur County is already offering a $50,000 reward for information about a theft case earlier this year.

While the methods for physically taking livestock haven’t changed much over the years, technology is connecting thieves much more quickly with a market for stolen livestock. Websites like Craigslist can help sell and deliver cattle to interested buyers in a matter of hours, which Huffman said has ODA brand inspectors quite nervous.

“We would have to monitor the Internet 24 hours per day, seven days per week, and even then we might not catch someone selling stolen cattle,” Huffman said in a recent announcement.

The challenge for Eastern Oregon ranchers, Huffman said, is checking frequently enough on cattle released during the summer onto vast rangeland or up in the Blue Mountains. A human presence can help deter would-be thieves.

It also helps to brand livestock in case stolen animals are recovered, Huffman said. Brands are not mandatory in Oregon, but the state does require all cattle be inspected before leaving the state, before they are sold at auction or before being taken to a slaughterhouse.

“The challenge is to get good counts and identify missing livestock in a timely manner,” Huffman said. “The added value of the product justifies spending more to protect it.”

Randy Mills, livestock extension agent for Oregon State University in Umatilla County, said he can’t think of any recent cases of cattle rustling around Pendleton, though the issue of losses in general is weighing on ranchers’ minds.

Anybody who runs cattle in the mountains is familiar with losses, Mills said. In Western states, cattle are scattered over thousands of acres, where even if producers ride the range regularly they sometimes won’t see all their animals.

“If they’re gone, you don’t know why they’re gone,” Mills said. “They’re more valuable now, and (thieves) might be willing to take more of a risk. We hope not, but that’s always out there on people’s minds.”

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Contact George Plaven at gplaven@eastoregonian.com or 541-564-4547.

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