When Colorado rancher Ted Swanson discovered that thieves had stolen a large quantity of his hay last Labor Day weekend, he was stunned, surprised and angry.

“It was almost unbelievable,” says Swanson. “We’ve been here 20 years and nothing like this has ever happened before.”

Several large square bales of alfalfa and several round bales of grass hay were taken from a pasture roughly three-quarters of a mile from his house. “It was enough to fill a semi trailer,” Swanson says.

He estimates the value of the stolen hay at around $5,000. The thieves also damaged a front-end loader that had been left in the field. “They hot-wired it and used it to load up the hay. It also looked like they left it idling until it ran out of fuel.”

He immediately reported the incident to the local sheriff’s department. But the hay was never recovered, the thieves never caught.

“There really wasn’t very much they could do,” he says. “We were in a drought, so there weren’t any tire tracks in the pasture and there were so many fingerprints on the front-end loader (from previous use), they couldn’t find anything useful.”

Other such stories were being talked of with increasing frequency around the U.S. late last fall and early this winter. Farm organizations and law enforcement agencies in Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Iowa, Missouri and elsewhere were warning farmers to keep close tabs on hay supplies with the winter feeding season beginning.

“I can’t really remember a time when there have been so many reports of this kind of activity,” says Don Kieffer, executive director of the National Hay Association. “People see some hay in a field, pull in and load up the pickup truck and take off. It’s almost as easy as picking up aluminum cans in a roadside ditch.”

Kieffer and others see a direct link between the spike in hay-theft incidents and last year’s drought. “Hay is expensive and it’s hard to find,” he says. “That makes it a pretty tempting target for people with larceny on their minds.”

Transporting hay out of fields immediately after baling is the No.1 action farmers and ranchers can take to avoid becoming hay-theft victims, says Larry Hand, a special ranger for the Texas & Southwest Cattle Raisers Association. “You want to keep your hay as close to your farmhouse or ranch headquarters as possible so you can monitor what’s going on.”

Other preventive steps Hand recommends:

• If you have to leave hay in a remote field, put up a gate at the field entrance and keep it locked. “If someone is determined, the gate and lock might not keep them from eventually making off with the hay,” says Hand. “But it will slow them down a bit. You want to make things as difficult for them as you possibly can.”

• Ask neighbors to let you know about any unusual activities in areas where your hay is being stored. Do the same for them. “If you see someone you don’t recognize in the field, or if you see them at an odd time, it might mean they’re doing something they shouldn’t be doing,” says Hand. “Let someone know about it.”

• Take keys out of tractors or other equipment left in fields overnight. “The thieves might not steal the tractor, but they could use it to help load the hay onto their truck or trailer,” the ranger says.

• Consider installing motion-sensing, game-trail cameras – which cost around $150 for a basic model – in areas where hay is stored. “The pictures captured by these kinds of cameras can be tremendously helpful to law-enforcement officials investigating a case. You might get a full look at the faces of the people involved, a license-plate number on the vehicle they’re using to transport the hay, or some kind of identifying image,” says Hand.

“And be sure to conceal the camera. You don’t want thieves taking off with your hay and the camera, too.”