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When most people hear the term "cattle rustlers," they think of an era of stagecoaches, pistols and the Wild West. But modern day ranchers and dairy farmers will tell you the old crime of stealing cattle is very much alive today. And in Missouri, it's on the rise.
KSMU's Jennifer Moore reports.
On a hilltop along a dusty county road outside Marshfield, Missouri, the farmland stretches as far as the eye can see. The only sounds are the wind and the occasional bawl of a calf from a neighboring field.
This is cattle country, where the price of beef makes good conversation and a family's livelihood rests on how many head of cattle will make it to the sale barn this year.
It's also the prime location for a crime that never quite ended when the credits rolled on the old Western movies: cattle rustling. According to law enforcement officials, the number of thefts is up significantly this year: 100 head of cattle have been reported stolen in just five counties in southwest Missouri since January.
Dr. Tommy Perkins is president of the Greene County Cattlemen's Association.
He shows me the spot where he had cows stolen four years ago.
The fields and cattle he tends to daily are owned and operated by Missouri State University's department of agriculture, where Perkins works as a professor of animal science.
Perkins says the cattle he lost were all properly marked and branded. But his mistake, he says, was to keep his working pens close to the road, and to always feed at the same time each day.
Now, his gates are chained and locked and he has moved his pens to the middle of the field. He also networks with his neighbors and asks them to be on the lookout for anything suspicious.
The problem of cattle rustling is hurting farmers state-wide. In response to the thefts, Governor Matt Blunt has created a task force specifically for the purpose of combating cattle thieves.
Corporal Clay Meyer of the Missouri State Highway Patrol says the thieves have gotten more sophisticated over the years.
Meyer says the thieves continue to use old methods, such as stealing on a moonlit night. But new technology is making it easier for them to operate and communicate with one another.
He says Missouri's salebarns are now doing their part to stop cattle rustlers from selling the stolen livestock.
Meyer says it's important for ranchers and farmers to report missing livestock immediately, so that area salebarns can be notified before the thieves cash in on the stolen cattle.
In addition, Tommy Perkins encourages his fellow cattle farmers to keep specific records pertaining to each animal, including its physical description and date of birth.
He's taken protecting his livestock one step further.
"The other thing we're doing is, we've started going to retinal eye scanning."
"Of the cows?"
"Of the cows, yes. It takes a picture..."
He holds a scanning device a few inches from the cows eye and scans it with the push of a button.
"So this is a retinal eye scan of the cow?
A retinal eye scan of the cow."
But not every farmer can afford retinal eye scans of each and every cow. So law enforcement officials are asking ranchers to be their eyes and ears in the field by looking out for suspicious vehicles or activity and reporting those tips to the Highway Patrol or the local sherriff's office.
Dr. Perkins and other farmers say as long as there are cattle and a market for those cattle, there will be cattle rustlers. But if he has anything to do with it, they won't be stealing his cows again.
For KSMU News, I'm Jennifer Moore in Marshfield, Missouri.