As hog prices soar, thieves act

  • Article by: MIKE HUGHLETT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 23, 2011 - 11:29 PM

A Nicollet County farmer finds 150 pigs are gone, and his case isn't the only one.

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Hogs last year on Rick Grommersch’s Nicollet, Minn., farm.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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There's a hognapper at work out in southern Minnesota, and he or she is no amateur.

Last weekend, Ryan Bode discovered that 150 pigs -- plump, ready for slaughter and worth over $30,000 -- had been purloined from one of his southern Minnesota hog barns.

Just a month earlier, about 590 hogs worth over $100,000 were stolen from another southern Minnesota farmer.

Law enforcement authorities think the two thefts might be linked. "This is very unique in our area, for sure," said Kent Bauman, a Kandiyohi County detective.

It's unique just about anywhere in the nation's hog belt. The filching of a few pigs isn't uncommon, but stealing hundreds of animals is a complicated logistical operation, requiring trucks and slaughterhouses at the ready.

Whoever plucked these pigs from their pens, "they would have to be knowledgeable in livestock," Bauman said.

They'd also likely be well aware that hog prices are soaring. For hog farmers, that price increase is tempered by big hikes in the price of corn, the main ingredient in feed. But for a hog thief, the high price of corn isn't an issue.

Bode discovered the pig theft at his barn after a recent inventory. The animals were among 4,000 housed in one of Bode's eight hog facilities, this one near Lafayette in Nicollet County.

The pigs there were divided into lots of 1,000, and it became apparent that hogs had gone missing roughly equally in each lot.

Bode was baffled at first, since his barn had a security system. If someone had broken through the door, an alarm would have gone off in Bode's house, which is about 20 miles away in Courtland. If someone tried to sneak through the barn's few windows, it would set off motion detectors.

And any breach would also prompt an alarm at the Nicollet County sheriff's office. But there were no alarms.

Turns out the thief had gained entrance through mesh designed to keep birds out of the barn.

When the weather is hot, as it was during the thefts, a big canvas curtain in the barn is raised to keep the hogs cool. The opening, though, is still covered by the mesh. The thief or thieves cut the mesh, Bode said, but made such a small opening it was unnoticeable.

Bode believes the rustlers came back repeatedly, using the same way in. They unlocked the barn's gates to load the pigs onto a truck, but locked them back up before they left -- as if nothing had happened.

As at a lot of hog operations, no one was living directly on Bode's barn site to notice if anything was amiss. And Bode's animals had no ear tags, tattoos or other identifiers, not an uncommon situation.

Complex operation

To monetize a pignapping, the perpetrator must get the animals to slaughter. But that's not an easy task on a moment's notice. Slaughterhouses usually know the farmers they work with, and lots of documentation is involved in the transaction.

Bode's theory: The thief himself is a pig farmer who mixed the stolen hogs in with his own animals. "That's the only way to get them into a packing plant."

Bode said he has insurance to cover his loss. And at least he didn't get hit as hard as the Kandiyohi County farmer who lost 590 pigs in mid-August. That operation didn't have a security system, Bauman said.

Authorities in Mitchell County, Iowa, are also investigating the recent thefts of about 200 hogs from farms there.

Bauman said the Kandiyohi County sheriff's office is working with counterparts in Nicollet County who are investigating Bode's hog disappearance.

Meanwhile, Minnesota hog farmers are on high alert. The thefts were a big topic of discussion at this week's board meeting of the Minnesota Pork Producers, a trade group.

"I think it's really something that will make everybody think twice," said Rick Grommersch, a pork board member and hog farmer who lives about 7 miles from the Bode farm crime scene.

Grommersch said it's not uncommon for hog farmers to leave their barns unlocked. That might change now, and Grommersch said the recent thefts have even got him thinking about installing cameras or motion detectors near his barns.

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003

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