Nary a day goes by that the Grimes County Sheriff’s Office (GCSO) doesn’t log a call for “animal estray,” an animal that has escaped from its owner or an animal that is wandering and its owner is unknown. In fact, from Feb. 14 through Feb. 27, 93 calls were documented, and each call takes a toll on the spectrum of players – from the livestock owner to drivers to the county coffers.
Randy Cleery has served as the GCSO Livestock Officer for nine years and attributes the recent rise in straying animals to a shortage of hay. First, there was the 2018 drought, followed by continuous rain that made fields too wet to get another cutting.
Cleery said, “We still have trees from the 2011 drought falling on fences. We have these heavy rains washing out water gaps. It hasn’t been a good year for the cattle industry.”
And from the animal’s perspective, the grass is green regardless of which side of the fence it’s on.
One of Cleery’s biggest frustrations is that people today don’t get to know their neighbors and how to contact that neighbor if livestock gets out.
He said, “They expect the sheriff’s department and law enforcement to baby-sit them.”
As a cattle owner himself, Cleery said, “It’s the nature of the beast to get out.”
According to Cleery, “If you hit livestock on a county road or a farm-to-market road, whoever hits it is responsible for the animal. If you hit it on a state or federal highway, then the owner of the animal is responsible for the vehicle.”
If someone’s livestock has taken up residence on your property, the GCSO has five days in which to locate the owner or pick the animal up. If the owner can’t be found, the animal is transported to the Navasota Livestock Auction and held while a public notice is posted in the paper for two weeks.
He said, “Then, we auction it off. The money goes into an escrow account at the treasurer’s office and after six months, if nobody claims that money, it belongs to the county.”
As for livestock along roads and highways, Cleery said, “Wherever we can put them, we put them. We get them off the road. A cow will usually find the hole that it came out of or it’ll make its own hole to get back through a fence. Now horses, all they want to do is run.”
Livestock owners can be cited for their loose animals. According to Grimes County District Attorney Andria Bender, it’s a Class C Misdemeanor adjudicated in the justice of the peace court with a fine up to $500.
Grimes County Sheriff Don Sowell said, “The biggest problem we’ve been having these last few years is horses and donkeys. It’s irresponsible horse and animal owners.”
Through intelligence gathering, GCSO is aware of persons outside the county dumping old horses and mules.
Cleery said of one area of Grimes County, “Since September, we’ve probably picked up 15 horses.”
While cows generally stick to the grass on the side of the road and can be herded, horses run, which increases the chance for auto crashes and cowboys must be hired to rope them.
When not responding to calls, Cleery is riding around Grimes County’s 1,177 miles of roads and highways, identifying properties with livestock and has created a “Stray Log.” Often utilizing the Grimes Central Appraisal District website, he adds the livestock owner to the Stray Log database and when he receives that 3 a.m. call about a loose animal, the database enables the officer to contact the owner quicker.
Relationship-building is another important part of Cleery’s job. He said, “They know I’m looking out for their best interest trying to help them keep their cattle off the road.”
Sowell praised Cleery’s work but described the animal estray issue as “time consuming” and using “a lot of unnecessary manhours.”
Farm Bureau agent Jones also sees both sides of the coin, since his clientele consist of livestock owners and drivers.
Jones said, “If you’ve got cows, they are going to get out.”
He continued, “Very few insurance companies will write farm liability anymore. Farm Bureau is one of very few that will do that. We call it Texas Ag Advantage and we extend liability coverage to livestock both on and off the premises and also to farm equipment on and off the premises.”
He continued, “If you are driving a tractor on a county road, somebody comes over the hill and doesn’t see you in time, and they decide to sue you, we will defend you. We have almost as many tractors get hit on the highway as we do cows. That’s because people are driving so fast.”
Jones said the impact of livestock claims on premiums is insignificant and very few vehicles are totaled in run-ins with livestock but that can depend on whether it’s a 250-pound calf or a 2,000-pound bull.
Jones has been in the insurance business for 37 years and doesn’t recall a fatality involving a cow or a horse but ceded that horses are worse to hit than cows, hogs worse than horses and that more deer and hogs are hit than cows.
Jones said, “If you hit a hog, you’re probably going to go airborne and that’s not a good place to be.”
Depending on the driver’s response, they can be on the hook for auto, medical and fatalities.
Jones said, “More often they get killed trying to avoid the animal rather than hitting the animal. They jerk the steering wheel trying to miss something and roll.”
In counseling his own sons, Jones advised “If you hit the animal, it’s a comprehensive claim but if you jerk the steering wheel and run off the road and you didn’t touch the animal, it’s a collision claim. You feel bad if you hit somebody’s animal, but it’s better than getting killed.”