Monday, September 26, 2011

Pig rustling flummoxes law enforcement in the Midwest

This New York Times story about the rising problem of pig theft reminded me of another recent story on a special law enforcement unit in Texas that targets cattle rustling. Here's an excerpt from the hog theft story, dateline Lafayette, Minnesota, population 659, where 150 pigs recently disappeared from a farm building with deadbolts on the doors.
[I]n Iowa, with added cover from the vast stretches of tall cornfields, pigs have been snatched, 20 or 30 at a time, from as many as eight facilities in the last few weeks, said the sheriff of Mitchell County, adding that among other challenges, the missing are difficult to single out.

“They all look alike,” said Curt Younker, the sheriff, who said he had only rarely heard of pig thefts in his decades on the job. “Suddenly we’re plagued with them.”
Some livestock economists pointed to the thefts in this hog-rich region as one more sign of the grim economy, a reflection of record-high prices for hogs this year and the ease of stealing pigs from the large barns that are often far from the farmer’s house.

Elsewhere, the story further amplifies the spatial isolation theme, noting that the so-called "finishing barns" where pigs are often raised are "often off gravel roads, far from most houses and busy towns, in part to avoid complaints about the smells of pig waste and other environmental concerns." These facilities often operate automated feeding and watering systems, which means workers are rarely present.

I wonder if law enforcement authorities in Minnesota and Iowa might benefit from the collective knowledge of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, an organization featured in the earlier story about cattle rustling. In both cases, raising the animals--and transporting them--requires specialized knowledge and equipment. Further, as with cattle ranchers in Texas, it seems that world of hog raising in the Midwest is tight knit. This has raised uncomfortable questions about the possibility that meat-processing plants or affiliated “drop-off” facilities or auction barns have processed the stolen pigs--and that they have done so with knowledge the pigs were in fact stolen.


ScottA. said...

One of my family's friends was a hog farmer. There was always the problem of one or two pigs disappearing, presumed to be taken by someone to be butchered for personal use.

But I can understand with the downturn the desire to steal pigs for more than personal use. These are some size-able operations (60,000 hogs explains why 150 can go missing for days without being noticed) that probably require a number of low-paid farm workers to operate. How much loyalty do these workers have to their employers.

It is harder to ID hogs than cattle as most farmers just do notches on the pig's ear when they are born. They usually just ID litters and forgo the identification of individual animals. Why have solid identification methods for an animal that is going to be slaughtered in mere months? I don't think cattle association techniques of fighting rustling will be effective without a serious reform effort by hog farmers in managing their large herds.

They need to focus on individual animals from birthing pin to slaughter house, have better security measures than just deadbolts, and not leave automatic feeders as the animals primary caregiver. But that means a lot of overhead costs. I don't think hog farmers will address the issue until thefts cut into their bottom line.

KevinN said...

This story sounds like a sign of the times. It reminded me of the increase in copper theft in urban areas in recent years. As the prices of commodities continue to spike, the potential payoff for thieves makes the crime extremely lucrative. One way the Reno area has tried to curb copper theft is by holding scrapyards that accept scrap metal responsible for dealing in stolen goods if they take property they know or should know is stolen. Perhaps a similar enforcement strategy could help tighten the market for ill-gotten pigs. If the pig-raising community in the Midwest really is tight-knit, it shouldn't be difficult for the processors to recognize stolen pigs. Sometimes it's more effective to go after the middle men than it is to go after the actual criminals themselves.

Also, I wonder if it would be cost-effective to do something like micro-chipping of pigs. If branding or ear-notching is insufficient, this would be a surefire way to identify the owner of particular animals. However, at $20 to $30 per animal (assuming it can be done at around the same cost as a house pet), the cost might prevent its widespread use.

Courtney Taylor said...

After helping a friend raise her FFA (Future Farmers of America) pig in high school, I cannot even imagine the logistics these pig snatchers are dealing with. Pigs are high-strung and nervous creatures. They are often difficult to lure into a truck and keep calm once they're in there. I would guess the people stealing the pigs are experienced with livestock. As Scott's comment alludes to, they likely work on the pig farm they are stealing from or work on another farm in the area. I agree that if losing pigs to theft is an issue, pig farmers should consider a unique identification method for the pigs. Perhaps within each local area, each pig farmer has a certain technique for notching the ears or brands the pigs (although I feel awful even suggesting that). In South Australia this is a required practice (see the Branding of Pigs Act of 1964).

Azar said...

Sheesh. Talk about a sign of the times. The possibility of processors knowingly distributing stolen animals is particularly disturbing, but with no controls and ineffective enforcement, it is perhaps very likely. Can you put a cheap tracking device on a pig?