by Russ Quinn, DTN Staff Reporter
OMAHA (DTN) — For years farmers have been battling thieves bent on stealing valuable equipment and even livestock. Now farmers are being forced to protect their hay from theft as criminals realize how much these crops are worth.
With the price of hay rising because of high demand and diminished production due to fewer acres and the severe drought, hay theft reports across the country are on the rise. A Google search of the phrase “hay theft” brings up many articles of hay being stolen from Maine to California and other places.
ECONOMICS PUSH THEFT
Donald F. Kieffer, executive director of the National Hay Association based in St. Petersburg, Fla., said hay theft is a growing problem across the country. Unfortunately, it is a problem that is all too common with the members of Kieffer's organization.
“I have had reports of hay theft from one coast to the other coast,” Kieffer told DTN. “A lot of the hay is stacked at the field-edge right near the road, and criminals are taking advantage of this.”
Kieffer said the increasing value of hay is the main reason for a rise in theft. High-quality hay can now cost up to $300 per ton and this invites theft, he said.
Rural criminals who live in these areas know the value of the hay and a stack of hay sitting in a remote field in the middle of night is extremely appealing to a thief, he said.
“In the past, no one would ever think of stealing it to resell, but now that it is worth more, people are willing to steal it,” he said.
Alan Rohwer knows firsthand about hay theft. He and his brother, Jerry, farm near Elkhorn, Neb., on the western outskirts of Omaha.
Over the last several years, the Rohwers have had round bales of alfalfa stolen from different fields. Three years ago, they had about 35 bales stolen, and this summer 16 alfalfa bales of theirs were stolen. The brothers filed police reports both times, but so far, the hay hasn't been recovered.
“You go through all the work, the getting up early in the morning to make sure the moisture is right to bale and you produce this good hay that will bring some decent money, and then someone steals it before you even have the chance to sell it,” Rohwer said. “It is awfully frustrating.”
The Rohwers, who grow corn, soybeans, alfalfa hay and have beef cows, figure the 16 round bales they lost this summer to be valued at about $100 to $150 a bale, which would total $1,600 to $2,400. They also pre-sell some of their hay, which hits their pocketbook when they come up short on tonnage.
About two miles east of where Rohwers' hay bales were stolen this summer, fellow hay producer Mike Plambeck (who is a cousin to the author of this article) also had round bales of alfalfa stolen.
Plambeck figured he had about 15 bales stolen out of a housing development. He was putting up hay in the undeveloped lots which are seeded to alfalfa. He valued the hay at roughly $100 a bale, so he lost $1,500.
“We reported it (to the police) and filled out a report, but I haven't heard anything back yet,” said Plambeck, who raises cattle and sheep near Gretna, Neb. “If they ever did catch someone, it would be hard for me to look at hay bales and say those are mine for sure.”
TECHNOLOGY vs. HAY THIEVES
While the Rohwers and Plambeck grow hay in a fairly suburban setting with many eyes watching their fields, the problem of hay theft is prevalent in more rural areas as well.
Tillman County, Okla., a rural county of 7,300 people, sits along the Red River on the Oklahoma/Texas border. Bobby Whittington is the sheriff of Tillman County and said his county has seen an increase in rural crime involving hay bales in recent years. He needed to do something about it.
So the innovative county sheriff invested in a portable GPS system. He placed a GPS vehicle tracker in the end bale in a line of hay where it had been stolen earlier this year and waited.
Four weeks later, in the middle of the night, a message was sent to his cell phone telling him the bale had left the parameter he had established on the system.
With the help of his undersheriff who was at a computer tracking the bale's real-time movements, Whittington came across the thieves as they put the bale behind a house in a small town in the county. He followed the suspected thieves back out to the hay field where they loaded another bale.
At that point, the sheriff turned on his lights, stopped the vehicle and arrested the occupants.
“They told me they were feeding their cows — mind you, this was in the middle of night — but once I told them there was a GPS receiver in the bale, their faces fell and they asked to just return the hay,” Whittington said.
“Needless to say, that didn't happen.”
The case is making its way through the criminal justice system. The suspects face felony charges of concealing stolen property, which carries a possible three- to five-year jail sentence. Whittington said he has not had a single hay theft reported in the county since this arrest back in April.
Kieffer said he knows some hay growers in Western states have also used modern technology to catch hay thieves. Several hay producers have invested in camera systems to monitor their haystacks.
“Hay is a very valuable commodity and these growers are going to use technology to protect their profits,” Kieffer said.
KEEPING AN EYE OPEN
Rohwer and Plambeck use less high tech — but still effective — ways to monitor their hay.
Both have used the fact that many people live close to their fields to their advantage. After their hay was stolen three years ago, the Rohwers distributed flyers offering a $500 reward for information leading to an arrest of whoever stole their hay.
While no one stepped forward, what did happen was people in the area became more aware of their bales of hay.
“Every time we load up hay anywhere now, we usually get a call from someone saying, 'Hey, there is someone loading up hay in one of your hayfields. Are they supposed to be doing that?'” Rohwer said. “I tell them to keep calling because we now have a chance to maybe catch them the next time.”
Plambeck had nearly the same story when he sold hay this fall. Several neighbors questioned the hay buyer as he waited for Plambeck to load him.
“It is good they are keeping a watch out now,” he said.
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Posted with DTN Permission by Haylie Shipp