Animal theft is a growing problem on dairies across the country. From cows to calves, no animal is exempt. Animal theft could be occurring unbeknownst to you. Here are the reasons why you should perform a herd inventory on a regular basis to prevent theft.

It’s not hard

A physical inventory is not hard to do. And, no matter what type or size of business you operate, a physical inventory should be part of your management plan. It can be argued that it takes time, but the benefit far outweighs the time taken.

Inventories can be done manually or by using more sophisticated radio-frequency-identification systems. Either system requires accuracy and timeliness to be effective.

The best prevention comes from performing inventories on a regular basis. “Consistently keeping track of physical herd numbers is one of the best ways to prevent against theft,” says John Suther, senior special investigator with the California Bureau of Livestock Identification.

Someone should be in charge of performing a physical inventory once a month. “Either an owner or the manager should perform the inventory,” recommends Suther.

Loss of income

A stolen animal is stolen income.

“Animals are like cash, and you need to verify that what is on paper is physically on your operation,” says Mike Myers, detective with the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department Ag Crimes Unit in California. “If you aren’t performing herd inventories, you could be losing money and never know.”

“Animals could also be gone for years before you realize it,” says Dennis Tosti, brand inspector with the California Department of Food and Agriculture. “Gone with the animal is that animal’s income potential.” A physical inventory is a safety net — the sooner you know you have a problem, the sooner you can fix it.

Thefts are up

“The openness and accessibility of many dairies makes them easy targets for theft, and the movement of people in and out is not often challenged,” says Zeke Austin, special investigator with the Arizona Department of Agriculture. “Calves can sell for as much as $400, and that can be very enticing to some people.”

“In the past year, there have been 973 cattle stolen in California for dairy and beef,” Suther says. Although this number is 40 percent higher than one year ago, he believes that the majority of the increase this year has been in beef cattle. A year and a half ago in California, they arrested someone for stealing more than 400 dairy calves. Washington and Idaho have also seen a large increase in dairy-cattle thefts.

“This problem is more common than you would think,” agrees Myers. Although calf theft is the most common, no animal is exempt.

Animal identification

A good identification system goes hand-in-hand with herd inventories. Myers, Suther, Austin and Tosti recommend branding calves at birth as a secondary identification system.

“You can cut and replace ear tags and remove brucellosis tags very easily — I’ve seen it done,” Myers states. “A brand is the only way to permanently identify an animal.”

Myers says the only way he has been able to recover animals in some theft cases has been because of the brand.

Calves should be branded prior to going to a calf ranch.

Other ways to prevent theft

In addition to performing regular herd inventories, you should consider limiting access to your operation at night — one way in and one way out. Put a surveillance camera on anything of value — the milk tank,   calves, maternity pens — and the entrance to your dairy. Put fences around your calves and limit access to them. Depending upon the operation size, consider hiring nighttime security.

What if it happens to me?

Thefts need to be reported. If you think you have a problem with animal theft, contact your local law enforcement agency.

It could happen to you

Circle H Dairy in Turlock, Calif., knows firsthand that animal theft can happen. It has been estimated that between 150 and 200 head were stolen from this 1,500-cow operation. It is unknown how many calves were stolen at birth.

“The pens looked full, and the computer records looked right, but we never did physical inventories,” says Margo Souza, owner Circle H Dairy.

Since the theft occurred, Souza has started using radio-frequency-identification ear tags and performing herd inventories on a monthly basis. In addition, every calf is branded at birth and security cameras have been installed on the maternity pen.

Inventories are performed by Souza and her herd manager. “By doing the inventories on a regular basis, I not only know what animals I physically have on the dairy, but it gives me a chance to look at the facilities every month,” Souza says.


There are six locations on an animal that can be branded — the shoulder, rib and hip on either side of the animal. Brands must be registered in all of the states in which you do business.