DNA wins the day for Sask. cattle producer

Good record keeping | DNA tests help catch a thief

Glenn Strube has proven that DNA and dogged detective work aren’t just the realms of scientists and police officers.

The mixed farmer from Shellbrook, Sask., recently saw his determination rewarded at a trial over the loss of his bred heifers more than three years earlier.

Following a week-long trial in Court of Queen’s Bench in Prince Albert, Sask., in December, judge G. M. Currie found Kelly Deck, who also farms near Shellbrook, guilty of theft of cattle over $5,000 and making a counterfeit mark on cattle.

He was found not guilty of fraudulently possessing cattle found astray.

Deck, who is serving six months on a conditional sentence order, including making $7,200 in restitution, has said he plans to appeal the conviction.

Strube’s story began when some of his bred heifers disappeared in late September of 2009.

He was pasturing 30 heifers and two bulls on a half section of his land 11 kilometres northwest of his home quarter. After checking his herd over several days, Strube determined that 10 of his bred heifers were missing.

He said he initially thought the cattle had wandered into the bush or outside his property, perhaps into another herd.

Theft was the furthest thing from his mind.

“Wasn’t concerned at first because that happens fairly often because there’s quite a bit of bush on that land and the group could just be in the bush,” he said.

“But the next day when I go up and check, the same 10 are missing. So I’m still not overly concerned because the perimeter of this half section is fenced as well.

“The next day I go check again and the same 10 are missing and then I know that they’ve got out, disappeared. So then I start searching.”

Calling his neighbours was the start of an aggressive investigation. “Phoned around and spent lots of time looking,” he said.

Strube’s suspicions grew after a snowfall made it easier for him to look for hoof prints, but to no avail.

“It snowed and that’s good because I’ll be able to track them now pretty easily if they’re out there somewhere, but absolutely no tracks and no one has seen them,” he said.

“So then you’re suspicious, but you still think nobody would steal them. I didn’t notice any truck or trailer tracks coming in there.”

Strube expanded his investigation after several days of not seeing any sign of the animals.

He began by phoning livestock facilities in Saskatchewan, and a buyer at the third facility on his list, Saskatoon Livestock Sales, told him that Deck had recently marketed cattle there.

Strube said he next contacted the brand inspector, outlining the situation along with a detailed description of his missing cattle. Strube said none of his heifers were branded but they were tagged with radio frequency identification tags and his personal dangle tags in opposite ears.

The consensus from the brand inspector and Shellbrook RCMP was that it was highly unlikely the missing cattle would ever be found.

“They (police) didn’t give much hope either. I was pretty discouraged,” he said.

“They thought it was maybe hearsay and neighbours having trouble. They didn’t think it was theft. They just assumed I had misplaced them and they were still out there.”

That’s when DNA came into the picture. It was the one important detail Strube had going for him and later proved to be a cornerstone to solving the case.

“I told him (brand inspector) if we could find these cattle, couldn’t we take DNA and compare them to my cows. I know the mothers. Being in the purebred business, you have to keep track of the pedigrees,” he said.

“Eventually I got the phone call that they had found my alleged heifers and they wanted to do a DNA on them.”

Nine of the 10 heifers were found at a feedlot in Duck Lake, Sask., while the remaining one had gone to southern Alberta. Strube said his ear tags had been cut out and replaced with Deck’s radio frequency tags.

DNA tests were completed on all nine animals at the feedlot, as well as the mothers and a remaining sire at Strube’s farm.

The crown paid for the DNA testing on the nine animals, while Strobe paid $1,055 for testing at his farm.

Strube said he is “elated and relieved” following his three-year ordeal.

He now questions the value of his perseverance.

“This is almost not worth it, after all we went through. Of course we found him guilty; that was good,” he said.

He advises other producers to brand their cattle and be able to individually describe as many of them as possible.

“That’s how I won this case. I knew that one of them had a breathing problem and that was quite important because that came up in court as well…. Attention to detail.”

Crown prosecutor Jennifer Claxton-Vicki said Strube maintained a book of records consisting of dates and times of birth, whether they had to be pulled and the identity of each of the calves’ dames and sires.

“Really, I think what persuaded the judge to accept his evidence and to give it a lot of weight was his record keeping,” she said.

“All this kind of stuff just really gave the judge the impression that this guy’s paying attention and so if he said these are his cattle, he’s probably got it right.”

Good record keeping also includes DNA.

“I’d say the DNA was extremely crucial in this case (in) proving that these cattle came from my herd,” said Strube.

At the end of the day, he said producers need to look out for each other.

“It’s impossible to check them everyday. We’re just too busy … but you depend on your neighbours if something is out. That’s just common courtesy around here. You expect your neighbours to let you know if you have cattle out.”