Work Together with Local Law Enforcement
By Kellie Henderson
Alabama farmers troubled by increasing reports of theft of cattle and farm equipment may have thought more lately about their local sheriff’s department than usual, but another law enforcement agency is also keeping a watchful eye on farmers and their property.
A division of the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries (ADAI), the office of Agriculture Investigations works in tandem with local law enforcement in crimes directly related to agriculture.
According to Chief Investigator Bob Holley, Ag Investigations originated as an assisting agency for local law enforcement agencies working on cases of theft of cattle and equipment.
"Of course now, people will steal anything for the metal it contains, even abandoned cars. We also have a lot of cases of theft of 4-wheelers and other ATVs now, but we’ve very seldom been hit by cattle theft as hard as we’ve seen lately," said Chief Holley.
"Especially with the economy the way it is lately, it seems like more people are looking for the easy money. Unfortunately, we also just have those people who think stealing is their job," said Holley.
According to him, over 15,000 feet of copper have been stolen in Alabama in recent years, and over the past several months cattle have been reported stolen in 12 counties in Alabama.
According to information released by ADAI, in the last six months, 208 cattle have been stolen from farms and stockyards in Franklin, Perry, Montgomery, Lauderdale, Hale, Lowndes, Mobile, St. Clair, Dekalb, Cherokee, Randolph and Clay Counties.
"Eighteen of those cows were found and recovered. The suspects had stolen an older trailer nearby to load the cows on, and the trailer didn’t hold up, so they abandoned it," said Holley.
In addition to Chief Holley, eight other ag investigators handle cases involving unfair and deceptive trade practices against consumers, theft and related crimes against the state’s agriculture industry and food safety. They also assist sheriffs and other law enforcement officials in the investigation of farm related crimes. Monitoring horse sales, inspecting livestock markets and enforcing stockyard responsibilities are also among the duties carried out by the investigators.
Ag investigators also conduct inspections of highway shipments of agricultural, horticultural, aquacultural and livestock commodities and regulate the interstate and intrastate movement of livestock.
In the near future, the agency will deploy the state’s first canine specially trained to detect various meat and plant material that may endanger public health or pose a contamination threat to Alabama farms.
"A lot of our job is also acting as a liaison between counties. For example, if someone steals something in Lawrence County and that property is found in Mobile County, we can coordinate efforts between the two sheriffs’ departments. We can work in all areas of the state and we act as a kind of information central passing along information to other sheriffs’ departments," Holley said.
And he said there are several types of situations common to livestock theft investigations.
"Typically, if just a few cattle are missing, the investigator may find the cattle had wandered out of sight or a neighbor was to blame for taking them. However, when a large number of cattle are missing without a trace, more often than not, cattle rustlers are to blame," he described.
Given the recent rash of ag-related thefts in Alabama, Chief Holley said his primary advice for farmers is to be aware.
"If you suspect something is going on, it probably is. If you see a strange vehicle, write down the tag number if you can. And record the serial numbers on every piece of property possible. And if you find an animal deceased, arrange for a necropsy. We can’t find a possible projectile without that step," he recommended.
Holley asked farmers to report appropriate crimes to local law enforcement and to his agency.
"Local sheriffs’ departments often carry a huge workload, so it may be several days before they get around to letting us know something has happened in a particular county. We’re glad to help in getting the information to other counties about things they should be aware of," he explained.
Holley also urged farmers to act quickly.
"For whatever reason, people sometimes will not report missing cattle, whether they think it’s a bad reflection on them or that a couple of head aren’t enough to worry about. If you wait six months to make sure they’re really stolen, that’s a cold trail for us to follow," he added.
And he said branding livestock is a wise decision, adding that stolen cattle typically haven’t been branded.
"Ear tags can be switched, tattoos can be blotted out and microchips can’t always be read by all electronic readers. The old-fashioned brand is the only legally recognized method for a person to prove an animal belongs to him or her, making branding one of the best deterrents to livestock theft," he said.
Holley also asked other law enforcement professionals to remember his agency is available to help in agricultural crimes.
"Some counties don’t call on us very often, but we’re more than willing to help," he said.
For more information on reporting ag-related crimes, visit the ag investigations website at
www.agi.alabama.gov/investigations. Chief Holley also offers farmers the following information and advice for protecting their property.
• Cattle rustling isn’t just a crime of the Old West, it is still a major crime today.
• Rustling can occur as simply as cattle wandering into a neighbor’s pasture and the owner of that pasture not notifying the cattle owner, essentially keeping the cattle for themselves.
• Rustlers may also drive up to a loading or working area and herd penned cattle onto a truck or trailer and speed away.
• In general, cattle rustling tends to increase whenever beef prices are high.
• Most rustlers are stealing for cash value – whether it be to put food on the table or to trade for drugs.
• Investigators believe many stolen cattle go unreported; sometimes because owners don’t discover the thefts right away or because they decide to use the loss as a tax write-off.
• Cattle don’t come with serial numbers. Most states west of the Mississippi rely on brands – marks seared into the hide of livestock – to show ownership of animals, but not all owners brand their animals.
• Brands are not mandatory in Alabama, but brand inspection can often help investigators determine if "out-of-place" cattle are in fact stolen.
• Farmers should keep detailed information on all livestock as investigators will need detailed information to aid in the recovery of missing animals.
• DNA analysis is another tool used to combat livestock theft. Investigative laboratories can match a calf’s DNA sample to its mother’s DNA.
• Timely reporting is imperative. In some cases, rustlers will be across state lines within hours, meaning they may be able to sell stolen cattle the same day. Or, cattle can be quickly processed and beef shipped out of state within a few days.
• Avoid feeding livestock next to a public road. Livestock can become accustomed to vehicles and approach any one that stops.
• Make a note of any suspicious vehicles or people you notice and send the information to the local sheriff’s office.
• Install video surveillance to secure farms and deter rampant thievery.
• Install audible alarms on outbuildings to prevent illegal entry or theft.
• Keep small and large equipment locked in a barn, garage or shed, preferably near the home. Make sure doors and windows are secure.
• Never park machinery within easy access of a road where it is vulnerable to theft and vandalism.
• Remove rotors, distributor caps or batteries from motorized equipment left outside for long periods of time.
• Do not leave tools or other equipment in the back of a pickup truck. Locked toolboxes are a deterrent to thieves.
• Keep storage areas clean and well-organized to keep track of equipment and discourage potential thieves.
• Notify your local law enforcement agency of your chemical delivery and storage sites.
• Lock up chemicals; if stolen, they can be resold.
Kellie Henderson is a freelance writer from Troy.