Much more than a plot line from a western novel, this month’s brazen theft of cattle in Eastern Alberta is a stark reminder of the downside of the upswing in ranchers’ fortunes.
Cattle rustling is one of the oldest crimes on the Prairies, yet those who raise livestock fear it’s been relegated to a novelty status, the kind of story reporters can bring out their best “cow puns” for, and the kind of case for rookie lawyers (if the perpetrators are ever caught).
But as cattle prices continue to raise the ceiling to new heights across North America, that may have to change.
Thankfully, Alberta at least has an RCMP Livestock Investigation Unit, which has been busier than ever.
The latest case it’s asking for the public’s help on involves the theft of 59 heifers from a farm near Czar, in the Provost region. At current market value, those feeder heifers are worth about $80,000.
Ranch owner Allan Hobbs is prepared to put up a $25,000 reward for information leading to the recovery of the missing cattle.
Corp. Dave Heaslip has been chasing rustlers and their ilk for years. In this case, the RCMP livestock investigator is confident the animals didn’t just break through a fence. They were in an 80-acre field, right near the feedlot in the main farm yard, and were fed and checked regularly. They were branded and tagged — all the things that are supposed to help in cases like this.
“We suspect the animals were taken by someone who knew the daily routine so evaded detection,” said Heaslip.
The number was just right for a full load in a straight haul livestock trailer, which could have been filled relatively quickly.
Allan Hobbs admits theirs is a busy yard. With the feedlot, and the fact the family buys and sells feed, vehicles are coming and going regularly. But one of those departing rigs must have contained their cattle.
“There were supposed to be 192 head, and when we brought them in to sort and haul them off for summer pasture the first week of May, that’s when we noticed ‘holy smokes, we’re short,’” exclaimed Hobbs.
It was a gut-wrenching discovery.
“It felt like I had a target on my back,” admitted the rancher, whose faith in his fellow man has been shaken.
“But it’s not a real first for the area. These thefts have been going on for quite some time. About three years ago, a potload and a half of cows and calves went missing from south of Czar, and they never did find a trace of them. It’s an ongoing issue.”
Like so much of rural Alberta, this region is big country, with miles between ranches, and traffic usually sparse.
But there is routine and rhythm to farm work, and Hobbs believes someone had been studying their operation.
“Oh, I think so. I think they’re very organized, and I think they knew where those cattle were going before they picked them up.”
Hobbs and his sons run the mixed farming outfit that’s been going for 104 years. Their distinctive “Lazy H C running bar” brand would not be easy to alter, but Hobbs suspects those heifers may end up in a remote pasture as breeding animals that never come to town, to avoid detection. But he’s hoping his sizable reward offer might still lead to the recovery of the animals.
“We want to catch who did this. Look, I’m out $80,000 now. If I get the heifers back, and if I pay the $25,000 reward out, I’m still $55,000 ahead of where I am now.”
“The more we can get the word out there, the more people will be vigilant, and not only in this case, but in other cases as well.”
Hobbs calls cattle rustling a real problem, with not very real consequences.
“The thing is these guys who are doing it have nothing to lose, and if they get caught, there’s really no penalty. They’ll get a small fine, maybe a year’s probation, and then they’ll go back and do it again.
“We need to fix the justice system so there’s some recrimination for these criminals. We need some tougher penalties, something with some teeth in it, that will make them think twice if they get caught.
“The industry is going to have to address this theft issue. It’s been ongoing forever, and it’s getting worse, because things are worth so much. It’s really hard because it’s straight loss for the producer that loses them.
“If somebody out there has any information on any of this, maybe we can break this ring up, and do some good. Because I don’t think this is the first time they’ve done this.”
For the Hobbs farm, it’s a search and recovery operation. But for other ranchers, Corp. Heaslip advises vigilance in these heady economic times for the beef business.
“We’re asking guys, if you’re going to put your cattle out on pasture, check to see who the neighbors are. Tell them what you drive, and who’d be checking the cattle. Out in the rural community, everybody knows what’s going on. Always brand your cattle. If you’re checking them once or twice a week, maybe you’d better check them three times a week, because time is of the essence.”
There have been some tips coming in on the Hobbs case, and as costly as it would be, Allan Hobbs is convinced his sizable reward offer for the cattle, the arrest, and conviction of the criminal would be a small price to pay for the greater good of his farm, and the cattle industry.
“I would pay it in a heartbeat.”
If you have any information about this crime, you can Allan Hobbs at 780-842-7106, your local RCMP detachment or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477.
Dianne Finstad is a veteran broadcaster and reporter who has covered agricultural news in Central Alberta for more than 30 years. From the Field appears monthly in the Advocate.