Machinery Chatter
Dan Miller Progressive Farmer Senior Editor

Tuesday 09/25/12

Beat the Thief At His Own Game

We spend a lot of time here talking about equipment—the new stuff, strategies for selling it, and how you all put that stuff to work on the farm.

An unlocked a machine shed might be an invitation to theft. Rural crime is said to cost farmers and their insurance companies more than $5 billion a year. (Photo: Jim Patrico)

What about keeping it -- as in, preventing theft?

We've written about this from time to time in The Progressive Farmer magazine and right here. This might be a good time to review, given that during harvest you may be parking equipment overnight in remote fields -- away from people, roads and lights.

There are two rules about theft.

First, never underestimate the thief. Given time and a relatively unsophisticated supply of tools, loading a combine or tractor onto a flatbed trailer is little more difficult than if you drove it up there yourself.

Two, hiding the key to the tractor under the seat is not security. But on the other hand, no system of security is impenetrable. Experts say the best security comes in layers. It is a combination of measures to discourage thieves -- locked cab doors, steering wheel locks, equipment chained closely together, planters and tillage equipment lowered to the ground, electronics stored out of sight in locked boxes, etc. The idea is to make theft more difficult by creating layers of difficulty. Ultimately, the thief may be able to breech all of them. But that takes time and time is the no friend of the thief.

For thieves, the chances are small of being caught winching high-dollar implements aboard trailers. The recovery rate for stolen equipment is said to be as low as 10 pieces found for every 100 pieces taken.

A general, area-wide security plan for your farm is best built in zones (locks, etc. count as point security, or security specific to a potential target of theft). Four zones of security can protect your farm or ranch.

Zone 1: Begin your security effort at the legal edge of your property line. It is the place to build fence and construct barriers to natural exits. Knowing exactly where your property ends is helpful in preventing theft. Here's how you place a ring of security around your land.

- Post "No Trespassing" signs all around your property. There are standards for hanging the signs. Check with your sheriff's department to learn the rules you'll want to follow. The signs may not deter crime. But they do announce the legal peril an intruder faces when he walks onto your land.

- Check your fences frequently for cuts and breaks.

- Electronic tracking devices may be turning the tide against theft. But alert neighbors are still one of your strongest allies. Ask your neighbors to keep an eye on your fence lines and the more remote areas of your property.

- Mount gates to sturdy fence posts. Secure the gates with hard-to-cut chains and heavy-duty locks. Control the number of keys you give out for those locks.

- Use the natural terrain to enhance security. Build berms along drainage ditches to conceal equipment and block access to roads. Where it won't affect your farming practices, cut ditches across open areas. Sink barriers of railroad ties or sections of utility poles into concrete to block natural exits from the farm. Use hills and trees to screen equipment from traffic on nearby roads.

- Know exactly where your property lines lie. This is helpful in preventing -- or at least discovering -- timber theft. Timber theft is cutting trees without the owner's permission. Timber trespassing is more difficult to prevent. This is when loggers stray over a property line to cut down an adjacent owner's trees.

Zone 2: There are times when equipment is left in the field far away from the home place. Livestock too, are often fenced into remote areas of the farm. Here, an important part of your layered defense is, once again, your neighbor. If equipment and animals can't be seen from your home, look for ways to bring them into the view of your neighbor's place.

- Remove all keys from the equipment and lock the doors. Some equipment manufacturers produce keys with electronic chips in them. The chip is coded to start only that vehicle. Ask your equipment dealer about other ways to disable equipment, such as pulling fuses.

- Photograph your equipment. Record all serial numbers, including those on radios, monitors and GPS equipment.

- Lower implements to the ground to prevent towing. But keep the transport wheels on the ground to frustrate tire thieves.

- Park multiple pieces of equipment into a tight circle, putting the smaller pieces inside. Locks and chain can link together multiple pieces of equipment.

- A low-tech way to help recover stolen implements is to paint some out-of-the-way portion of the equipment with a specific color. For example, paint the roof of the tractor cab with a bright orange circle, or the inside of a wheel with yellow. Thieves won't look for it. But a deputy alerted to the presence of these markings can make a quick arrest.

- A high-tech way to recover stolen equipment is by way of a GPS system. If it hasn't been disabled, a GPS unit offers the sheriff a way to track your equipment. Another use of a GPS tracking system is to create a virtual fence around your equipment yard. The system can be activated over the telephone or by computer. If the implement moves outside the GPS-activated virtual fence, law enforcement can be notified. Another option is the LoJack system. It includes a hidden device that can be activated to transmit a radio signal.

- Ask your sheriff's department about the Owner Applied Number program. This is an ID program developed by the FBI to track stolen equipment. You can create your own, unique ID system.

Zone 3: Know that identity theft has come to rural America. Mailboxes feed this illegal scourge. Unsecured mailboxes mounted to isolated posts, contains mail -- checks, credit card bills and credit offers -- that is a tempting mark for thieves. Here are steps to protect your personal identity.

- If you can't purchase a post office box, collect the mail every day. Don't use your mailbox to send mail. The red flag on the box is an invitation to theft.

- Keep your home and shop locked when no one is home. Lock all file cabinets.

- Shred unused or expired credit cards, offers for credit cards, bills and other financial documents not important to your records. Or, create a "burn bag." This is a bag into which financially related mail is placed and routinely burned with other burnables around the farm.

- Protect your computerized records with passwords. Don't leave your laptop, Blackberry and other electronic devices in plain view on the seat of your pickup. They also contain information that makes it easy for thieves to steal your identity.

- Check your credit reports at least once a year.

Zone 4: Secure the central, work area of your farm including barns, workshops, storage areas and other outbuildings. Here are some ideas to improve security.

- Talk with your sheriff's department about the best places to install lights. Install motion alarms inside your buildings.

- Make sure all exterior doors are solid-core construction or made of metal. Make sure hinges are mounted so hinge pins are inside the locked building. Install 3-inch screws in the center hole of each hinge leaf. Use heavy-duty striker plates, also mounted with 3-inch screws.

- Secure overhead doors by drilling a hole into the track just above the top roller. Insert a heavy lock through the hole.

- Erect high chain-link fences around chemical storage areas. Put locks on your anhydrous tanks. Remove the hoses. Depending on your budget, you might want to erect chain link around grain-storage areas and animal-confinement facilities.

Rural crime is said to cost farmers and their insurance companies more than $5 billion a year. Popular targets for theft include livestock, timber, saddles and tack, and agricultural chemicals, such as anhydrous ammonia fertilizer. Thieves also target high-value crops such as ginseng in Michigan and nuts and citrus in California.

But equipment tops the wish list of enterprising thieves. Stealing it is a high-profit endeavor. There is a rich market in the U.S. for stolen equipment. There is foreign demand, as well. It is not difficult to truck equipment stolen from a ranch in Texas -- a state where farm equipment thefts are high -- across the border into Mexico. It's not even highly challenging to ship stolen equipment to hot markets overseas, such as Eastern Europe.

Dan Miller can be reached at

Posted at 2:23PM CDT 09/25/12 by Dan Miller
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