ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
The cry that sparked a rush to California in the mid-1800s is true for Marion County and much of Kansas these days: “Thar’s gold in them thar hills!”
Unlike the historical story of old, however, Marion County gold is more likely to bellow than glitter, and it certainly isn’t for the taking.
With cattle prices hovering around record highs-recently more than $1 per pound for feeder calves-the estimated 70,000 head of cattle that dot the hills and pastures of the county are literally worth millions of dollars.
That’s great news for area ranchers and cattle-owners. But with high prices come higher risk of theft and greater impact if cattle stray.
The news is good so far in that regard, too, according to Marion County Sheriff Lee Becker.
“To the best of my knowledge, we don’t have any active rustling going on,” Becker said, adding that cases of lost cattle are rare as well.
“We have good people in Marion County, and the farmers and ranchers here are real good about taking care of each other.”
That sentiment is echoed by area ranchers.
Randy Mills, who ranches near Florence in southern Marion County, said he has noticed reports of stolen or lost cattle in the Kansas Livestock Association magazine, but hasn’t heard of any problems in this area.
“If you have decent neighbors, it’s a share deal,” Mills said. “You tell them if you have some of their cattle and they tell you if they have some of yours.”
Tracy Brunner, who operates a cattle ranch near Lost Springs on the northern edge of the county, echoes Mills’ assessment.
“For the most part, we haven’t seen any increase in the loss of cattle,” he said, giving a lot of the credit to the informal Neighborhood Watch program that has been the trademark of rural areas for generations.
Role of law enforcement
The prevalence of cattle rustling through the years has prompted action from Kansas Legislature, Becker said, including the creation of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation in 1939.
Ironically, he added, the first director of the KBI was Lou Richter, a Marion County native who still holds the record for the longest tenure in that role (1939-1956).
The state’s current brand laws cover a gamut of situations-from strays, to unlawful branding, to the obligation of sale barns to substantiate the ownership of animals.
State law also outlines the procedures of law enforcement when cattle stray or are lost.
“What typically happens is that someone will call in, and say, ‘Hey, I have this stray that I found in my field,'” Becker said. “We take down that information. If they don’t call back and say they’ve found the owner, then I’ll send a deputy out.”
The deputy will check for ear tags or brands as well as write down a description of the animal.
If the animal is branded, the owner usually can be identified through the Kansas Brand Book, a resource containing more than 18,000 brands registered with the Kansas Animal Health Department’s Livestock Brand Division.
If the owner cannot be identified within 10 days of notification, state law authorizes the county sheriff to sell the animal at public sale.
The proceeds of the sale are to first reimburse any actual costs associated with keeping the animal in custody for the 10 days. If any funds remain, they are turned over to the county treasurer’s office and are to be deposited into the county’s special stray fund.
Becker said the process rarely goes as far as a public sale. In fact, during his five-year tenure it has happened only twice.
On one occasion, his office had simply taken the word of the person who rounded up the stray that the animal contained no identifying marks. When the animal was taken to the sale barn in Herington, the owner happened to be present.
“I decided we needed to take the little idiosyncrasies out of it, so now we’ll go look at it ourselves and verify whether it has an ear tag or whether we see a brand or not,” Becker said. “And we’ll have a better description of it.”
In the other case, four cattle were sold at public sale because of the owner’s long-term negligence to correct the situation.
When expenses related to the roundup and care of the animals came to more than $2,800, the owner released them for sale.
“If there’s rogue cattle running around, then I guess I need to take care of it,” Becker said. “So that’s what we did.”
Cattle rustling is a felony when the loss exceeds $500. Becker said it’s also illegal for a cattle owner to allow his or her animals to roam at large, but there is no penalty section to the statute.
In most cases, Becker said, neighbors rectify stray-cattle issues without needing to involve law enforcement.
“Once they call me, I have to operate within the scope of my authority,” he said.
“Typically we handle a lot of cattle calls with very little effort,” Becker said. “If someone says there’s three black cows out on (U.S.) Highway 77, it’s a hazard to the public and also to the livestock owner. So we get out there right away and we do the best we can.”
Becker said his office will do its best to identify and then contact the owners. If they don’t know who the owner is, they will call the property owner in the area where the cattle are situated. Even though the landowner may not own the cattle, he or she often can identify the person leasing the property.
“Or we’ll call area people, and they say, ‘I know it’s not my cattle but I know (the neighbor) is out for the weekend and I’ll go take care of it,'” Becker said. “They have an interest in everybody trying to take care of each other’s stock.
“The rural community is like a small town-it might be 10 square miles instead of two or three, but they know who’s supposed to be there,” Becker added. “They know if there’s a foreign vehicle there, they know when something’s amiss.”
Becker said most cattle owners have an uncanny way of knowing when they have more or fewer cattle than they should have.
“I’ve gone out on horseback with guys who own cattle, and they can tell you pretty quickly how many are there,” he said. “I can’t do that-it’s not my thing. And they can tell one cow from another.
“I don’t know if ‘art’ is the right word for it, but certainly it’s a skill.”
Becker said it’s not unusual when a cattle owner notices his neighbor’s steer has gotten in with his herd to alert the neighbor to the situation but not bother to cull out the critter until the rest of the herd is worked later in the season.
“Things fall apart very, very rarely,” Becker said. “But occasionally there’s someone who has a problem with it, or a bull gets in with a bunch of heifers, and it creates some problems. Or if there’s a disease, that would create a whole new situation.
“Normally, Marion County is 95 to 97 percent of the people are good, law-abiding citizens,” he added. “They take care of their stock and take care of their neighbors-and it’s a good thing.”