SELBY, S.D. (KELO) — Sometime between Friday, August 19 and Saturday August 20, someone cut the top two wires of the fence surrounding Selby rancher Vaughn Thorstenson’s cattle pasture.
Despite the presence of a security camera in the area, the exact time is unknown.
“Saturday at 2:00 [a.m.] we noticed there were cattle out,” Thorstenson said. “My hired man went over to see what the deal was.” Thanks to the camera, Thorstenson and his employee are pretty sure the cattle hadn’t been out long by the time they noticed them, and while they could not tell at the time if any were missing, they were suspicious.
“Last year, we had the same thing happen and we lost somewhere between 12 and 14 calves,” Thorstenson said.
As of Monday afternoon, all calves and cattle are counted and accounted for, but the evidence of tampering is there.
“You could see the tracks in the ditch,” Thorstenson explained. “You could see where the wires had been cut — where they’d pulled what looked like a dually pickup up next to the fence and then the grass is all matted down — you can see they had the cows all bunched up there.”
Thorstenson said that they called the sheriff and reported the incident. “You could see the wires were cut because they were pinched,” he said. “They just cut the top two wires — if you weren’t watching very closely, you might think, ‘Oh, the cows just broke the fence.’ It was a similar deal last year.”
There are 247 cattle in this particular group, which Thorstenson says range on half a section of land, a bit over 300 acres. The size of the herd and area make it tough to identify missing animals.
“You don’t really miss 10-12 calves right away, especially if the cows are out. You put your cows back in and fix the fence,” Thorstenson said. “They’ve been taking just a few head, so most people don’t miss them until they wean.” Due to this, he says it can be up to and over a month before a rancher realizes they’re missing.
By Saturday evening, Thorstenson says the cows were all still in the pasture, but they appeared to be stirred up. On Sunday morning, they were found to have busted through the fence, this time on their own. “We were certain they had been messed with.”
Monday morning, Thorstenson and his crew rounded the calves up to wean them and were able to get an accurate count, confirming they were all there.
While he is sure the fence was cut, Thorstenson is unsure if the calves were actually stolen this time. On Sunday, his hired hand found 13 calves on their own, separate from the herd, which he says is unusual. Thorstenson theorized that perhaps the thieves were spooked in the process and left the calves behind or that they grew nervous and returned the animals sometime between Saturday and Sunday.
Part of what has Thorstenson particularly on alert is the fact that he’s not the only one who’s lost cattle. He mentioned three other ranchers in the area who’ve lost calves both this year and last.
Thorstenson ranches on the east side of the state. While that may not seem like a huge deal, it can make pretty big difference. In South Dakota, all cattle west of the Missouri River must be brand inspected before sale. East of the river that requirement is dropped, and while a brand inspector east of the Missouri still has authority to check ownership, it is not a requirement for sale.
Despite ranching east of the Missouri, Thorstenson brands his livestock.
“On the east side of the river not everybody brands, but we do,” he said. “Our cows are actually number branded and have a hot iron brand on the left rib.”
That’s not all though. Thorstenson says the calves stolen last year — in addition to the brands — also had tattoos and EID tags in their ears as well as regular tags. They even have DNA that is taken at birth. Yet they were still stolen and never found.
Thorstenson estimates a stolen calf at a value of about $1,000. If you can swipe a dozen calves successfully, that’s $12,000 in your pocket, and if you do it carefully, the rancher might not even know they’re gone for over a month.
The true cost of a lost calf is much more than $1,000 for the rancher, according to Thorstenson, who notes that there are considerable costs associated with feeding, treating and raising cattle. “You had all that expense of raising that animal,” he said. “They took it right as you were about to cash it in, so it’s a 5-10% hit for the people it’s happening to — it’s not easy to make a living with that.”
You may be surprised how easy it is to steal a cow.
Kyle Rossow is a rancher and also a brand inspector for the South Dakota State Brand Board. He’s located just east of Herreid and is one of two inspectors east of the river.
“We’re few and far between,” Rossow said. “We’re looking for more help.”
Rossow advocates helping one another.
“In cases like Vaughn’s here, if you’re out in the country and you see some lights off in the distance, don’t be afraid to call the local law or the land owner,” Rossow said.
As a brand inspector, Rossow is tasked with inspecting brands at livestock sales to ensure that the person selling the animal actually owns it. Due to the lack of required inspections east of the Missouri River that job is a bit more difficult to do.
“It’s kind of when something happens that we start looking,” Rossow said. “A lot of guys this side of the river don’t brand their cows or their calves.” This makes tracking stolen cattle much more difficult.
Rossow would like to see the brand inspection area stretch across the entire state. Without it, selling a stolen cow — even a branded one — isn’t really so hard.
“[If] you get it on a truck and get it east further where there’s no brand laws, you get it to the sale barn, check in and — well we don’t look at it unless we have probable cause,” Rossow said.
All a thief needs to do in South Dakota is get to a sale barn east of the river, and chances are there will be no brand inspector. The biggest risk at that point may be a rancher recognizing the brand, but the farther you go, the less likely that may be.
“In my area, you get to Aberdeen — it’s only 90-100 miles and there’s no South Dakota inspector there because it’s a non-brand area,” Rossow said.
Of course, cattle rustling is not without risk either. Due to the value of the animals, cattle theft falls into the category of felony grand theft. Beyond this, a cattle thief is also trespassing, and doing so at night on a rancher’s land comes with a certain degree of peril.
“If you run across the wrong person that’s kinda fed up with it — they might not be so apt to call the law right away,” said Rossow, letting our imaginations take that thought to its conclusion. “Who knows.”
Despite the fact that dozens of cattle have gone missing over the years, Rossow says he’s never come across stolen cattle, with the majority of his work involving lost or stray cattle. This underscores the difficulty ranchers and authorities alike have in tracking down stolen cattle.
“Depending how often guys get to checking — it could be once every one or two weeks [that cows are checked],” said Rossow.
In a large pasture, being short a calf or two could also be easily chalked up to a missed count due to a calf lying down or even standing behind another cow.
Overall, Rossow doesn’t think theft is becoming more common, but he does feel that the thieves are getting more brazen. “They’re getting a little gutsier and gutsier every time,” he said. “This deal of Vaughn’s, he was right along a minimum maintenance road, three quarters of a mile off a highway.”
Rossow is referring to the location where Thorstenson’s fence was cut, near a highway, with just a hill blocking the view. “Somebody can wheel in there and catch you pretty easy,” he said. “They obviously didn’t care, or they knew that people were gone.”
This idea, that perhaps the thieves knew they weren’t going to be caught in the act, isn’t one without some credence, or one exclusive to Rossow. Thorstenson told us his main hired man was out at the fair that evening, showing livestock. The year before, the man was at a different show when they suspect cattle were taken. Another neighbor with missing livestock had them taken while he was in the hospital.
Both Thorstenson and Rossow strongly suspect the culprit may be local.
“It seems it’s always when people are gone when it’s happening,” said Thorstenson. “I think it’s someone who knows what’s going on — in small communities — it’s pretty easy to know when people are gone.”
“It’s not somebody just driving through the area,” Rossow said. “My thinking is it was somebody local that knew the pattern of these people.”
Currently, the brand board is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the recovery of stolen cattle. Thorstenson also personally chipped in $5,000 in reward money before he realized all his calves were accounted for. Despite this turn of events, he’s not withdrawing the bounty.
“It effects not only us personally — but it’s our neighbors and our friends and the people we do business with — if this continues, it’s a big drain on this community,” Thorstenson said.