JEFFERSON CITY - In 2006 Ralph Mika discovered that for two years he had been continuously robbed.
A couple living on his property were taking care of his cattle, but eventually he realized that instead of looking after his livestock, they were stealing them.
His story is only one case of many cases of cattle rustling.
Mika, now 70, resides in Mexico, Mo. He decided instead of driving back and forth between his home and his farm in Audrain County to hire in exchange for room and board a couple, named Lewis and Deanna Bowers, to look after his farm in 2004. Five years later, the Bowers are convicted felons.
After a three-year legal battle with the courts, the Bowers were sentenced to 5 years probation and 45 days in prison to start in 2009 for the theft of over 100 cows and calves. The Bowers have to pay in restitution the value of the animals, set at $106,920. Mika claimed another $55,000-$60,000 for the loss of future earnings from the calves, which the Bowers don't have to pay.
According to the FBI's Uniformed Crime Report, last year there were over $22 million worth of livestock stolen in the United States with only around 11 percent recovered. In Missouri in 2007, the most recent data available, there was over $800,000 worth of livestock stolen with only a 10 percent recovery rate.
Cattle rustling has become far more prevalent in Missouri over the past two years, said Jeff Windett, Executive Vice President of the Missouri Cattlemen's Association. After peaking earlier this year, he said, Missouri has seen a decrease in theft as of late.
The decrease can be attributed to a couple of things, Windett said. The first is the new bill, which went into effect August 2009. It makes any person who is convicted of stealing or receiving stolen livestock, valued at over $3,000, guilty of a class B felony, which requires a sentence of 5 to 15 years. The law also requires those convicted to serve at least 80 percent of their sentence.
This increase in punishment may be a big deterrent to potential thieves in the future, Windett said.
Another part of the effort to curb cattle rustling has been the reinstatement of the Farm and Livestock Protection Task Force.
In August, Gov. Jay Nixon brought the task force back into effect to help aide law enforcement agencies in the state track down and prosecute cattle thieves, according to a release from the governor's office.
Mika said he is a strong supporter of the task force and what they do, but they need more help. Right now, he said, they are "woefully overstaffed," and with more help they could be even more effective.
What caused the rise is not positively known, but there are theories. "When the economy goes down, theft goes up," said Carmen Fenton, spokeswoman for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Ranchers Association. Back in 2007 when the economy was in better shape, the numbers were low, she said, but in the past two years, there has been a dramatic increase in cattle theft.
Windett said the increase may be due to how profitable it can be. Cattle rustling is "pretty lucrative," he said, and it requires a "low investment by those stealing the cattle."
A lack of branding compounds the problem. Currently there is no law in place forcing ranchers to brand their cattle. Without this branding it becomes harder for livestock to be traced back to their original owner. Without this proof of ownership, the livestock are harder to track and easier to sell back into the legitimate market at full price.
While there is a voluntary brand system in Missouri where someone can register their brand so it is easier to be tracked, there are no brand inspectors to check livestock during sales or transportation to confirm ownership.
Windett said it is doubtful Missouri will see a required branding system in the near future. "I don't know how, given the states economy and budget it could happen right now," he said.