Ranch security still relies on a red-hot approach

Monday, January 28, 2013 - 9:33am

Fort Worth, TX (Fort Worth Business Press) -- Camera surveillance? Electronic tagging? Are modern methods making the red-hot branding iron obsolete? Perish the thought.

On Pete Bonds' and Jay Wright's ranches, branding blazes a theft-deterrent and indelible trail on cowhide despite technological inroads made in recent years to replace the method.

"We brand everything," said Bonds, a Saginaw rancher sticking with traditional methods to secure the several thousand head of cattle roaming his property just north ?of Fort Worth.

Developers of other options, including electronic tagging and surveillance systems, seem to have a marketing challenge: ranchers are strong traditionalists with a stubborn loyalty to tried and true methods.

Some ranches do use video surveillance, while others flirt with the concept of slipping radio frequency identification tags beneath a steer's skin.

"It's hard to be able to read them," said Bonds, who reports no cattle thefts in recent years.

Enjoying similar luck is Wright, whose 12,000-acre H4 Ranch in Morgan near Lake Whitney has no camera surveillance.

"When you talk about 12,000 acres, how are you going to survey that?" Wright said.

Riding herd on cattle herds is not easy, Bonds said, especially with the occasional rustler making life difficult for honest ranchers.

That's where the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association comes in. Since forming in 1877 primarily to battle cattle rustling, the Fort Worth-based organization has employed special rangers, who are trained and commissioned as peace officers, to investigate reports of ?cattle theft.

In 2011, the association reported 898 incidents under investigation, with 13,696 total head reported missing or stolen and 6,968 recovered. The 898 incidents were down from 978 in 2010, but not by much.

"We haven't really seen it go down," said association spokeswoman Carmen Fenton, referring to cattle theft.

While Tarrant County doesn't have the number of sprawling ranches found in other parts of the state, ranchers here know the potential for theft whenever a cow stands in an unprotected field.

"It's something that's going to happen," said rancher Bonds.

It's prevalent enough to keep life busy for H.D. Brittain, one of several special rangers enforcing state cattle rustling laws for the Fort Worth organization.

Like Bonds and Wright, Brittain acknowledges emerging identification technology, but he prefers the centuries-old method.

Speaking of radio frequency identification tags, Brittain said, "The problem is being able to read them" from a distance.

Still, they allow ranchers to track cattle from transponders placed on animals' ears or microchips implanted just below the skin. While many ranchers use the technology for tracking and inventory purposes, the number who buy the tags specifically for security is unknown.

"They can be used for [security], but we sell those tags for livestock verification," said Natalie Vernon, a catalog department representative with Micro Beef Technologies Ltd. in Amarillo, which serves several customers in the Fort Worth-Dallas area.

But ranchers haven't stampeded to buy them. Branding remains popular for thwarting cattle theft, with a ranch's register brand burned into a cow's hide being visible from a distance.

"Branding is the best method, by far," said Brittain, calling electronic identification "good and fine as a backup, but branding is visible from the highway."

Cattle theft poses a greater problem for unattended ranches, but Wright is no absentee owner. He and his family keep watch over some 1,000 Hereford cattle, some of which are headed for this month's Fort Worth Stock Show.

"We're bringing up some heifers [young unbred cows] in the commercial pen show," said Wright. He said he's expecting to earn $2,500 for a calf and cow pair. With cattle commanding between $800 and $1,600 apiece, and bull prices reaching $2,000, the incentive for cattle thieves becomes clear, Bonds said.

"If I break into a house and steal a TV, I may get $10 or $20. If I steal a calf that's worth $1,000 and I haul it to auction, I'll get that price at auction," Bonds said.

But not just anyone can rustle cattle.

"A cow thief is more of a specialized thief. He knows his animal," said Brittain, explaining that thieves who are new to cattle risk injury if handling the animals.

They also risk considerable jail time. Those found guilty of cattle rustling, a third-degree felony, facing up to 10 years in prison and-or a $10,000 fine.

Still some deem the reward greater than the risk.

And it could become more profitable if beef prices increase this year, as predicted by Rabobank, a Dutch financial firm that monitors agriculture. In December, a pound of ground beef sold for an average of $3.08, up from $2.92 in December 2011.

Contributing to the potential price surge are lingering drought conditions that have prompted ranchers to sell off cattle herds in recent years after hay and feed became too costly.

"Some [livestock auctions] have closed down in West Texas because there's not enough cattle to keep their doors open," said Jack Chastain, secretary-treasurer of Fort Worth-based Texas Hereford Association, which is sponsoring two auctions at this year's Stock Show.

Whether drought continues to thin Texas cattle herds remains to be seen. But whatever prices the animals fetch, at least some ranchers favor hot branding to protect the stock they do have.

"If you were to get every acre under a camera, the blanket of cameras would be worth more than the cattle," Bonds said.

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