Just because an agricultural operation is located in a rural setting doesn’t mean unwelcome visitors won’t stop by. Even if physical assets are kept under lock and key, an operation still has assets that could be stored digitally, which could be equally prone to being accessed by the wrong users. Though there seems to be a never-ending list of tasks to complete on a farm or ranch, precautionary measures to discourage theft is an item worth keeping on the docket.

Slivka sponheim anna
Freelance Writer
Anna Sponheim is a freelancer based in Montana.

“The biggest issue that the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raiser’s Association (TSCRA) has to deal with is the fact that stolen property oftentimes wasn’t properly identified in someone’s recordkeeping,” says TSCRA Special Ranger Joe Aguilar. “For instance, in the livestock industry, a victim of theft will tell us, ‘Hey, that's my cow. It's a black cow. I know that's my cow. I'm 100 percent sure it's my cow.’ And of course, I know that you know without a shadow of a doubt. But the thing is: How do I, as an investigator, properly identify it?”

Serving as a law officer for several years and having in-depth experience as a detective has provided Aguilar with extensive insight into the best measures to consider when keeping an agricultural operation safe. Though Aguilar has spent his career in Texas, his advice and tips for anti-theft actions are applicable to farms and ranches across the country. According to Aguilar, most cases boil down to one thing: lack of records and precaution.

“Proper identification has to be the number one thing to help us to help you,” he says. “I've got to prove that that animal is yours in some type of way, shape or form in a court. The fact that you shake a feed bucket in front of the cow and it comes right to you doesn't really provide proper identification. If you shake a steak in front of me, I don't care who you are, I'll run to you!”

In order to keep an operation secure and ensure all different types of assets are properly identified and kept track of, consider these five tips.


Be a bookkeeper

Keeping proper, detailed records and books is one of the easiest ways to secure an operation. This way, in case something is taken, authorities have access to as many pieces of information as possible to identify the property.

“We had these tractor thefts, and with recovery or reporting, nobody had their tractor serial number down. Nobody kept record of it. If people had their VIN numbers available, we could enter those in the system, and those tractors would get stopped at the border,” explains Aguilar.

Recordkeeping does not just apply to serial numbers of equipment. In cases focusing on stolen livestock, brands, markings, photos or vaccination tags have been used to return animals to their rightful owners. Without any record of ownership, though, law enforcement is out of luck.

“Regardless of what you have, ensure you have some type of proper identification to or documentation to say that that is yours, whether it be ID numbers, brands or even photographs,” says Aguilar. “We just recovered a calf that ended up on another property. The photograph from the owner was identical to the animal, and we knew it was his.”

Capture it with cameras

“Any type of electronic surveillance is probably one of the best tools that we have in combating theft,” says Aguilar. “With every day that goes by, these cameras and GPS devices get better and better. I think it's really important to invest in these systems because if you live in a rural area, the one thing you're probably not going to have are those Ring cameras on every street and doorstep like more urban places.”

In addition to adding surveillance, it is important to consider where assets are stored. Is the operation’s newest tractor parked in plain sight? Are off-site storage sheds locked? How often are animals being checked on? Partial photos of license plates, faces and scenes have assisted in recovering stolen property before, so Aguilar recommends utilizing whatever surveillance is available.

“Simple things like game cameras have been able to get us a picture of a vehicle or a description of the individual. Sometimes, those cases are made solely on those photographs that are taken,” he says.

Tag it with tech

Physical tags and keeping track of the numbers are great tactics to ensure assets remain under the proper ownership, but there are other tags that can be useful in theft-related cases.

“Another thing that is really important is being able to know what GPS devices are out there,” says Aguilar. “Apple has Air Tags. Other companies have GPS devices for their cattle. Knowing your options is very important.”

In one case, Ranger Aguilar had an individual who was well prepared for the possibility of theft from a pickup bed toolbox. Because Apple Air Tags had been glued on the inside of several tools, including a circular saw, each piece of stolen property was recovered. By assessing the perceived value of certain items and being proactive, owners are more likely to have stolen property returned to them unharmed.

“I always tell people to look at everything as a whole. Don't just jot down the serial number of the most valuable item in your house,” explains Ranger Aguilar. “Sometimes that cheap watch that you got at the local drug store ends up at a pawn shop, and it leads us back to the actual suspect of that crime. The more evidence we can put together, the better the outcome will be in case you are ever a victim.”

Too good to be true?

Especially after the COVID-19 quarantines, online shopping and trading increased substantially. With the increase in online activity, theft and scams have become more prevalent, and agriculture-related sales are no exception.

“If you come up on a deal that's too good to be true, the odds are it probably is,” says Aguilar. “We've had a large surge of internet crimes because people realized they could do a whole lot of business without having to be up close and personal. You have to look carefully at these deals.”

In order to protect purchases, it is important to look closely at photos, prices, email addresses, payment options and even grammar. Does everything match? “If you were to buy a horse online, look at the pictures of the horses. If somebody tells you that they're selling a horse out of south Texas, and you see the horse in front of a mountain with snow, that's probably not going to be south Texas, right?” he explains. “These are just a few of the red flags that we try to educate people on so they can stay away from some of these scams and not become victims.”

Act fast

If any kind of property has been stolen, a vital step to keep in mind is responding quickly. By informing local law enforcement almost immediately, agents or rangers are more likely to recover items with the advantage of saved time.

“That's important, especially when you're talking live animals or equipment, because people are going to try to get them to wherever they need to be or wherever the market is at,” says Aguilar. “As soon as anybody can, file a report so that somebody knows. A lot of times, animals come up stray – and maybe a month later, well, the animal has already been sold. The owner’s response is oftentimes, ‘Well, I figured it'd come back.’”

When in doubt, contact authorities. “Being able to report it is probably the number one thing that you need to do. And number two is get everything that could help investigators out,” says Aguilar. “You know, we're only as good as the information that we're given. I’m here to help, but we need you too.”