Hay theft turns high-tech for loyal Okla. sheriff

Sheriff goes high-tech to catch hay thieves
Tillman County Sheriff Bobby Whittington has successfully caught hay thieves through GPS tracking.

(CBS News) America's farmers and ranchers have a long history of dealing with cattle rustling. But now, they are losing another staple: hay.

Every day, Texas farmer James Lockridge puts out 100 bales of hay to feed his 3,000 cows. The drought has made that a challenge. "We don't have any grass and it's getting drier. There's nothing but dirt here, so if the cow can't get a hay bale to eat, that means they're going to go out there and literally starve to death," Lockridge told CBS News.

Hay has become a precious commodity for farmers struggling to feed their own cattle, and thieves looking to make a quick buck. Over the last year, Lockridge says he's had 200 bales stolen -- a $20,000 loss.

"Pretty much anybody that's caught out in the pasture now, they're met with a rifle," Lockridge said.

The problem goes beyond Lockridge's land. In several states, the drought has scorched grass, creating a hay shortage and driving up prices. Figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show the price of hay has nearly doubled in the last two years, from $111 in 2010 to $195 in 2012.

Hay production is at its lowest level since 1964 and hay brokers, such as Tom Baer in Colorado, struggle to meet demand. Baer said, "So if we get a lot of rain this spring, if we get good moisture, the hay situation could turn around just immediately. If we don't, it could be a real severe crisis."

Making the problem worse is it's difficult to catch the crooks. One reason it's hard to track hay thieves is that one bale looks just like the next, so one sheriff in Oklahoma came up with a unique solution.

Tillman County Sheriff Bobby Whittington has placed a GPS tracking unit in a bale of hay belonging to a farmer who lost 20 bales last year. He got a hit, and caught two men red-handed.

Whittington said, "Whenever a citizen has something stolen from them, that they've worked hard to earn and get and somebody steals it, I'll follow them. I'll follow the trail to hell and back to try to get it back for my citizens."

Whittington says he hasn't received any reports of stolen hay since the arrests.

However Lockridge hasn't had any success catching thieves yet, but he's working with local police to change that. He said, "I'm ready to catch them, and I want people to understand, you mess with my livelihood, I'm going to mess with yours."

To watch Manuel Bojorquez's full story, click on the video in the player above.