Hay theft on the rise in farm country

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At Windsor Dairy in Windsor, Colo., hay is stored far from the road. Hay prices are currently high, thanks to this year’s drought. (Grace Hood for Harvest Public Media)
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Reporter, KUNC
Grace Hood is a reporter for KUNC in Greeley, Colo.

Before this year, rancher Ted Swanson had only been the victim of theft once in his life – he had his bike stolen in Chicago. But Labor Day weekend, Swanson noticed about $5,000 worth of hay missing from his Northern Colorado ranch. It had been sitting in his field near the side of the road.

“They stole some 4x4x8s, some 3x4x8s and some big round bales,” Swanson said.

That’s about enough hay to fill a semi truck. Swanson suspects someone stole the hay to sell and make a profit.

Swanson isn’t the only farmer that has had his hay stolen. In fact, hay theft is on the rise. Aside from farmers in Colorado, farmers in California, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma have also been the victims of theft.

Stealing a semi’s worth of hay sounds very labor intensive until you learn that thieves hotwired Swanson’s front-end loader tractor to do the heavy lifting.

“Apparently (the thieves) left it idling because it was completely out of fuel when we discovered everything,” Swanson said.

This summer’s drought decimated much of the country’s hay supply, which has put ranchers in a bind. They’re seeing higher prices and even, as in Swanson’s case, hay banditry.

Hay is especially valuable during the winter months when dairy farmers and ranchers typically can’t use snow-covered pastures for grazing their livestock. Tess Norvell, who tracks hay prices for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Colorado, says, “hay is a hot commodity right now.”

In Colorado, ranchers are actually seeing a shortage for the second year in a row. Back in 2011, Colorado hay started flowing into Texas because that state was in a drought.

“We’ve been trying to pull hay in from other regions, but since other regions and other states are just as dry as we are, it’s just a pretty dire situation,” Norvell said.

Norvell says it’s the worst right now for smaller outfits that can’t buy huge quantities in bulk. Arden Nelson, owner of Windsor Dairy in Windsor, Colo., has been feeding his calves alfalfa, which is expensive. 

“It’s caviar of the hay world… no doubt about it,” Nelson said, watching about a dozen calves chow down on lunch.

Nelson was willing to pay $300 a ton for this premium hay because it’s the most nutritious for his growing calves. For Nelson, theft isn’t the worry, it’s finding enough feed for this 100-cow operation to make it through the winter. After considering shipping in hay from Montana and Nevada, Nelson settled on purchasing truckloads from a neighbor.

“It doesn’t mean we have enough,” Nelson said. “But we have good hay for this year, it just costs a lot more.”

In fact, it’s more than twice what it has cost in previous years for Nelson’s grass-fed operation. Some of those costs are passed along to Nelson’s customers who participate in a raw milk share program. This year he’s instituted a hay surcharge for members.

“And we’ve had people pay that willingly and then actually donate money to us on top of that which makes you feel really, really good,” Nelson said.

Back on Ted Swanson’s ranch, he has had to make a few changes, too. Police didn’t have enough evidence to track down the culprit in his hay theft case and he wants to make sure he’s not victimized again.

“Put locks on all the gates, chains and padlocks,” Swanson said. But he acknowledges that’s not going to stop someone desperate enough to steal.

“If someone were really determined I don’t suppose it would stop them but at least it would slow them down enough,” he said.

Because hay bales look so similar it’s hard to catch thieves, but not impossible. Earlier this month an Oklahoma farmer tracked down some stolen hay with the help of a GPS tracker hidden in one of the bales. With so much money at stake, fewer farmers are willing to leave anything to chance.