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'Hognappers' take hundreds of porkers in Minnesota, Iowa

By Phil Gast, CNN
updated 10:04 PM EDT, Sat September 24, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Thieves had to be familiar with the livestock system, law enforcement says
  • Authorities urging producers to beef up security
  • Thieves are tough to catch given size of operations, isolation of farms

(CNN) -- These little piggies went to market, but the people who raised them aren't getting the dividends.

Over the past few weeks, porkers have been pilfered at farms in Minnesota and Iowa, authorities said -- and the rustlers know a little bit about the business.

"It isn't your common thief who could do something like this," said Investigator Marc Chadderdon of the Nicollet County Sheriff's Office in south-central Minnesota. "These are not randomly picked facilities."

Thieves recently made off with 150 hogs worth $30,000 at a Lafayette, Minnesota, facility owned by Ryan Bode's family. This time last year, Bode said, hogs were going for between $120 and $130. Their market price has risen to about $200, a real incentive to bring home the bacon.

"I think it is a very well-organized ring, if you can call it that," Bode, 37, told CNN Saturday.

Several factors work in the thieves' favor, Bode and Chadderdon said.

The hogs weigh between 250 and 275 pounds and are market-ready. Thieves strike isolated areas, and vehicles used to haul the hogs may be shielded by tall corn still in the fields. "You probably won't notice anybody going up into the site," Bode said.

Operations these days are largely automated -- the feeding, heating and cooling -- reducing the amount of people needed on site. And in these days of large operations, hog barns contain thousands of animals, making it difficult to keep track of the numbers.

Such was the case with the thefts earlier this month at the Bode facility in Nicollet County.

The family has a total of eight sites, producing a staggering 60,000 pigs annually.

The pig rustlers hit the Lafayette operation, which has 4,000 head. It wasn't until the workers emptied a barn and did an inventory that they noticed 35 to 40 hogs were missing in each of four rooms.

The hogs almost certainly went to a slaughterhouse and arrived at supermarkets as sausage, pork chops or other products, officials said.

Chadderdon cites another factor that made it easier for the thieves to dump the product: The pigs had no identifying marks.

"We don't tattoo or earmark these pigs because it is labor-intensive and we have never had a reason to," Bode said.

Another 560 hogs were stolen from a farm in Kandiyohi County, Minnesota, Chadderdon said. And, according to media reports, thieves struck in multiple locations in Mitchell County, Iowa.

CNN was unable Saturday to contact appropriate authorities in those counties.

Chadderdon and Bode contend the thieves are familiar with the hog-raising business and are finding a way to sell the pigs, perhaps at slaughterhouses, pork-producing operations or hog-buying stations. People involved in the transactions generally know each other.

"It has to be someone familiar with the livestock raising system," Chadderdon said.

In order for pigs to be accepted at a slaughterhouse or packing plant, the seller must have paperwork, Bode said. "Somebody has to have an in somewhere."

Chadderdon said he is working with other law enforcement agencies and is going over tips.

In the meantime, he is advising pork producers to increase security through more motion-sensing detectors, alarms, cameras and other technology.

"I want farmers to count their animals and check their facilities," Chadderdon said. "If you have 4,000 pigs in a barn, you could count them and miss a couple hundred of them."

Bode said his family is beefing up security.

"You can't have somebody there 24 hours a day," he said. "That is not feasible."

Although profits are up, hog farmers are contending with higher corn prices.

Bode said he is angry because of the hard work and money it takes to get the pigs to market. A trailer full of stolen pigs can get to a slaughterhouse in just a few hours.

"Greed is pretty powerful," he said.

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