04/02/2012 06:52 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2012

Plight of Farmers Trickles to Consumers

It was an early Friday morning when Harry Shaffer noticed that something was wrong on his ranch in north Cleburne, Texas.

The retired IBM employee entered his gate to feed and check on his herd, but quickly noticed the absence of his cows' mooing.

They were missing.

Shaffer reported his cattle stolen in January to the Johnson County Sheriff's Office, but he still waits for his branded cattle to be found -- cattle he said he doesn't think will return.

He said he thinks cattle rustlers have shipped his cattle out of state or chopped them up into ground beef.

Shaffer isn't sure how cattle rustlers stole his cows because there were no signs of forced entry and the gate was locked.

"That's the mystery," he said. "We walked the whole area. We could not figure out the situation. It was like a helicopter came down and picked them up."

Since July, Johnson County has had 39 cattle reported stolen, which is abnormally high, JSCO Detective Steve Shaw said. Shaffer is just one of five Johnson County residents hit by cattle rustlers.

Cattle theft is abnormally high across Texas and it's the result of cattle selling for more across the state, said H.D. Brittain, Texas and Southwestern Cattle Association special ranger.

Several farmers in Tarrant, McLennan, Ellis and Hopkins counties, to name a few, have also reported their cattle stolen.

"There's no way law enforcement can prevent the thefts," Shaffer said. "We have a known problem. The present system isn't working. Ultimately, responsibility falls on the owner to keep an eye on their herds and to keep them under lock and key."

Law enforcement officials are following leads and still searching for the thieves responsible for the thefts.

"I hate to say that but it's so difficult to trace animals back to their owner without a brand," Shaw said. "We're still checking leads and relying on the public's help."

Anyone convicted of the cattle thefts could face a third-degree felony charge.

A person guilty of the charge could face imprisonment between two and 10 years. In addition to imprisonment, a person could be fined up to $10,000.

The thefts are related to the higher prices cattle fetch at sale barns, Brittain said.

Cattle rustlers can make thousands on stolen cattle, which are selling at record-breaking prices, he said.

Cattle can sell for nearly $1,000, while a bull can bring in $1,500 to $2,000, Brittain said.

Officials expect the price per cow to continue to rise.

Prices began to peak during the summer when the drought began taking its toll on farmers struggling to feed their herds.

It started in early 2011 when the rain-parched ground forced farmers to begin feeding their cattle round hay bales during the spring and summer.

Hay is usually used as feed in the fall and winter when grass grows the slowest.

But triple-digit heat and below-average rainfall put a strain on farmers who normally rely on their cattle to graze in the spring and summer months.

The demand for hay led to higher prices between $120 and $150 a bale in the summer.

And since many Texas farmers couldn't grow their own hay because of the drought, most of the hay had to be shipped in from northern states that were experiencing a more fruitful summer.

Importing hay is expensive and just adds to the cost, Shaffer said.

"A good rule of thumb is that one round bale of hay will feed one cow for a month," he said.

That's more than $1,500 a month for farmers with herds a little larger than 10.

It's been tough on Texas farmers because the cost of hay and its transportation aren't normally costs farmers budget for, Brittain said.

Raising cattle became too expensive for many Texas cattle raisers and they began downsizing their herds, leading to a statewide decrease in cattle.

Some farmers cashed in herds to save money before conditions worsened.

They then saved their money in hopes to buy their way back in the cattle business after conditions improved.

However, cattle are now selling for more than what they sold and farmers looking to buy cattle are finding it more difficult to re-establish herds.

Calves, which were going for about $600 to $750, are now worth between $900 and $1,000 and young bulls are about double that amount.

Texas lost more than one million cattle in 2011, bringing its total to about 11 million head in the state -- about a 9 percent loss.

That was enough to affect prices, Brittain said.

"Cattle prices always peak but they almost always dipped back down," he said.

However, Brittain said prices have continued to climb steadily because the demand for cattle has increased.

"It's all about supply and demand," he said.

As the supply of cattle decreased, the demand for cattle and the prices increased, he said.

The round of misfortunes plaguing producers could soon hit consumers in the checkout line.

Because cattle are selling for more, farmers will look for ways to offset the cost, and it usually results in higher ground beef prices at the grocery store.

"Prices are already beginning to creep up," Britain said.

And until the state's cattle are back to their normal levels of about 12 million, prices may keep rising, he said.

"Most people don't understand what we producers are going through. How could they?" Shaffer said. "Unfortunately, farms are hit with higher prices before anyone."

Consumers will soon feel the higher prices and understand how the drought affects everyone -- not just farmers, he said.