BUHL, Idaho — Two guys and a four-door sedan.
That's all it took for cattle rustlers to relieve dairy owner Pete Wiersma of three calves.
Once the province of outlaws and the bane of hardscrabble ranchers who grazed their cattle on the open range, cattle rustling has never gone away. Like the livestock industry, it's only gotten more efficient.
"Rustling is alive and well everywhere in the West," said Jim Connelley, director of the Division of Livestock Investigation for Nevada's Department of Agriculture. "The gooseneck trailer and diesel pickup are probably the best piece of equipment to come to a rancher in many years and also the most useful equipment for a rustler."
In general, cattle rustling tends to increase whenever beef prices are high, said Larry Hayhurst, head of the Idaho State Police Division of brands. Because the price of cattle feed has been relatively high this year — making the cattle more expensive to raise and lowering the potential profit — the theft reports should be on a downswing. But in rural dairy regions — where milk cows can nearly always fetch a high price and methamphetamine use is becoming as much a part of the landscape as grain silos — the rustling reports seem to stay fairly constant. The Idaho State Police gets between 300 and 500 reports of lost or missing cattle a year, Hayhurst said.
"Most of the rustlers are stealing for the money, the profit — whether it be to put food on the table or to trade for drugs," said Idaho State Police brand inspector Sean McCarthy. "The dealers tell dairy workers, 'You go out and you steal me five, 10, or 15 head of calves, we'll supply you with meth so you can either deal or use. They'll turn around and sell the calves to Joe Blow dairyman at say, something like last week's top sales yard price of $2,600 a head. It adds up pretty quick."
Most states west of the Mississippi rely on brands — marks seared into the hide of livestock animals — to show ownership of animals. But dairy owners, in particular, tend not to brand their cattle for at least the first year or so, Hayhurst swqaid.
Wiersma reported his missing calves right away and bought a smaller branding iron that fits on a newborn calf's flank. He still hasn't used it, however.
"I just don't have it in my heart to brand day-olds," he said. "Probably if I get them stole again I'll probably get fed up and do it."
In the meantime, he'll put up a tall fence and hope that does the trick.