To most people, cattle rustling is a crime that happens only in old movies. But to cattlemen and ranchers in the United States, it is has always been part of real life. With an enduring economic recession, and cattle going for about $1,000 a head, rustling has experienced a renaissance.

From Arkansas to Missouri to Oklahoma to Oregon, rustling is on the increase and the criminals involved are rarely caught. Brands can be manipulated and back roads are poorly patrolled by law enforcement. One possible deterrent is tagging.

Stealing cattle is not like shoving a handful of gold coins in your pocket. But knowledgeable thieves can put together a horse, dog and trailer and walk away with $10,000 or more at a time.

Overtaxed local law enforcement, whose ranks have all too often been depleted by decreases in the taxes that fund them, can only do so much. Technology can do more. But only if it is used, and it will only be used if it is accepted by the men and women who are losing the cattle.

Tagging and Tracking

A vet can inject an RFID, or radio frequency identification, tag about the size of a grain of rice into an animal in seconds. When the tagged cow is shipped out, an inspector can use a hand-held scanner to retrieve the cow’s information. If the registered owner and the brand diverge, the inspector knows something is wrong.

Not only could tracking technology help against theft, but it could also streamline inventory control for ranchers, and restrict health-related recalls to meat that is likely to have been infected.

But adoption of technology in ranching is slow. Cattle have not been turned into nodes in an information network for a reason. That reason is not technical. The technology is there and it works. It’s behavioral, both on the federal side and on the ranchers’.

Federal Indifference and Rancher’s Suspicions

In order to be of any real use, the information attached to a tag must be uploaded to some kind of central database. There is no such database nor any plans to create one. Even when the U.S. government was flush, it was not a priority. The more rural and the more Western a concern is, the less importance it has to those who control the disbursement of federal funds.

Ranchers are also highly suspicious of centralized federal authority over their business. Federal directives that saved a lot of land for future generations also wound up limiting feeding areas for livestock. Sometimes that’s been good, but many times it has turned a remote location that only ever saw cowboys into a small city, with concrete, powerlines and plumbing to serve the city-bred visitors.

There have been many changes in the livestock industry in the preceding decades. To many of the remaining independent ranchers, the ones most likely to get rustled, those changes have been bad ones. Factory-raised beef defies both the historical spirit of ranching and makes it harder to make a living. Why should they agree to use a new technology, something that stinks of big ag?

Entrepreneurs are the Ranchers of Tech

I believe the key to any future adoption of tag-based livestock control, the kind of control that would have rustlers where they belong – running in place at the end of a spar – will require the participation of independent entrepreneurs and developers. A rancher is a lot more likely to trust an indie dev than a government rep, a federal investigator or a salesman from some software chaebol.

Perhaps kids that were raised in the sticks and still have an affection for it, who do not want to see this way of life dead and who don’t want to see either the rustlers or the agricultural conglomerates determine how we eat, will apply some of their unique technological know-how – and a little of their grandparents’ elbow grease to the problem and come up with a way to read, record and retrieve information that ranchers could get behind.

Maybe they could create a nation-wide, but decentralized and privately-held national cattle ID database, utilizing cloud computing and available to law enforcement as a tool that the ranchers themselves, and their indie tech partners, hold and control. Anything that doesn’t have their brand on it, they won’t touch. Amen to that.

In the coming weeks I will be working with Kin Lane, a Web application and database programmer, to create a blueprint for the implementation of just such a system as I advocate here. We will post the blueprint in ReadWriteWeb on Friday, May 7. Further steps may include a survey of ranchers, to ascertain whether our plan would be accepted by the people it is designed for, and a case study using a set of half a dozen small ranches in southeastern Oregon.