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TROY, Alabama (Reuters) - When Chrissy and Benny Pinckard woke one morning in March on their small farm in Alabama to find two prized bulls stolen they were distraught.
They were also a statistic.
Cattle ranching is a multibillion-dollar industry in the United States and cattle theft is a small but growing problem as a recession bites and thieves realize that stealing cows is a relatively easy way to raise a quick buck.
Stolen cattle are often loaded onto trailers and taken straight from their farm or ranch to auction at a stockyard, according to detectives involved in tracking thefts.
Identifying those cattle not easy since many are not branded and detectives and owners need to act fast to retrieve the animals before sale -- a task made doubly difficult if they have been transported across state lines.
Texas, the nation's biggest cattle state, reported thefts virtually tripled between 2007 and 2008 to 6,404 head of cattle, according to Carmen Fenton, spokeswoman for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.
But the numbers probably underestimate the problem which is sufficiently serious for the association to have its own rangers working alongside government law enforcement agencies, Fenton said.
Texas has 13.8 million head of cattle which contribute $15 billion to the state's economy. The state legislature passed a bill in May raising the maximum penalty for livestock theft from two to 10 years in prison, comparable to other states.
According to Fenton, modern cattle rustlers are a far cry from the stereotype of the Old West.
"When people think cattle rustling they think John Wayne," he said. "But it's not like that. Cattle thieves are sophisticated and technologically savvy. They know the law and the penal law. They have a truck and a trailer. They take the cattle to the market and sell them for market value that day."
The Pinckards run a mixed farm with around 200 head of cows and nine bulls for breeding, which fetch up to $3,500 each.
"It has been family land for a long time and you utilize the land. We are also true animal lovers. When the cow gets sick we call the vet. We get attached to them," said Chrissy Pinckard.
When they discovered their two black bulls, named Arnold and Antonio, were gone, the Pinckards called the police, the sheriff, local television stations, sale barns, the livestock inspection station and local rodeos as well as offering a $5,000 reward.
Three days later two suspects were caught in Georgia and shortly afterward the two bulls as well as other cattle were located on a trailer in a forest safe and well.
The Pinckard theft was just one of at least 300 in Alabama in the last six months though authorities have a good record in terms of recovery, said Bob Holley, the state's chief agricultural investigator.
"The economy has gone down so cattle rustling has gone up," said Holley, who also reported a rise in other types of agricultural theft.
State agricultural commissioner Ron Sparks offered a concise description of the type of people who steal cattle: "It's just drugs and thugs."
Most cattle thieves work alone or in small teams rather than as part of organized crime syndicates.
Iowa, Montana, Washington and the Dakotas were not seeing a sharp rise in thefts but in Missouri, one of the country's main cattle states, theft is up significantly, said Jess Peterson of the U.S. Cattlemen's Association.
"You can just go down the road and you can grab cows," he said.
(Additional reporting by Ed Stoddard in Dallas)
Editing by Alan Elsner