MARIONVILLE, Mo. -- A lot of things were said about cattle rustling in Bob Herndon's garage, but it was a lawman's remarks that drove home just how bad the problem is in the Ozarks. Eighty-seven thefts. Twenty-nine counties. Almost a half-million dollars in stolen property.
"They're pretty bold individuals," said Sgt. Dan Nash, a Missouri State Highway Patrol detective who's been investigating the thefts for more than a year.
For the first time, Nash explained Thursday to ranchers -- many of whom have awakened to a smaller herd in recent months -- that an "organized group" is behind the ongoing thefts.
The crooks are stealing the cattle under cover of darkness and then selling them at local stockyards and barns within a few days, he said.
"I'm confident we'll arrest 10 or 15 people for stealing cows," Nash told dozens of farmers seated on wooden planks perched atop plastic crates.
The lengthy investigation has been a frustrating one, the sergeant said. The main hang-up: There's no way to prove a cow is stolen unless it has been branded or the owner has a blood sample.
Most cattle farmers can't pick their calves out of the hundreds that go through regional sale barns each day, Nash said. And most keep dismal records, he added.
"It's like catching a piece of straw in a haystack. It all blends together."
Since October, Herndon and his wife, Sara, have been holding informal meetings in their two-car garage -- a cozy, cedar-lined headquarters for the resistance.
On Oct. 16 -- as the Herndons slept -- someone snipped through four wire fences, drove onto their land and coaxed 25 calves into a trailer using their corral, which lies only a few hundred feet from busy U.S. 60.
The Herndons have since taken the steps to register a brand with the Missouri Department of Agriculture, but Bob Herndon is still reluctant about taking the bureaucratic route.
Cattle producers have traditionally resisted branding because it can lower marketability of hides and injure the animals if not done correctly. But with so many thefts, many farmers are rethinking their stance.
About 5,000 brands have been recorded in Missouri, and it is the only legal identification method that stands up in court.
"The No. 1 deterrent is branding," said Sgt. Loren Pope of the Christian County Sheriff's Department.
Pope recently returned from two days in Oklahoma, where he trained with an investigator who deals solely with cattle and farm equipment thefts.
Changing daily schedules to throw off cattle thieves and carrying a pen and pad to jot down vehicle descriptions and license plate numbers were other tips offered by Pope.
Many of the farmers asked about better policing at the yards where cattle are bought and sold. "I really think our stockyards can help us here," said Jack Ebert, a neighbor of Herndon's who had 11 head of cattle stolen last August. "We've got to get this problem taken care of."
State Sen. Jack Goodman, R-Mount Vernon, said a roving government employee conducting random checks at sale barns might help some, but he strongly urged farmers to brand their cattle or take blood samples for verification purposes.
Goodman was also asked about stiffer penalties for people convicted of stealing cattle.
After all, in the old West, horse and cattle thieves were hanged for their offenses.
"We could go back to the oak tree," joked Don Sissel, who hasn't suffered the misfortune of his neighbors.
"I got a rope," a woman on the other side of the room sarcastically chimed in.
Dressed in plain clothes, sheriffs from three counties attended Thursday's meeting to assure theft victims they were doing everything in their power to catch the clever rustlers.
"They've done a pretty good job covering their tracks," Nash said.
In Greene County, 11 cattle thefts were reported between February and December of last year, said Capt. Jim Arnott with the Greene County Sheriff's Department. The number of cattle stolen in each instance has ranged from one to 30, Arnott said.
Producers all over the county have been hit by rustlers, with thefts reported near Republic, Bois D'Arc, Ash Grove and Fair Grove, Arnott said.
The ongoing thefts were a topic of discussion among more than 200 farmers who attended a Missouri Cattlemen's Association meeting in Springfield last month.
At that meeting, association members passed a resolution supporting the creation of a statewide task force to handle livestock theft cases and other rural crimes.
The Missouri Cattlemen's Association has worked closely with county sheriff's departments as well as game and fish agents with the state Department of Conservation, said Brent Bryant, the association's executive vice president.
The association is offering a $2,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone who stole cattle from one of its members, Bryant said.
"We encourage people with information to come forward, and ... we encourage our members to be vigilant and keep their eyes open," he added.