Thieves target span wire on center-pivot irrigation units
By Doug Rich
When Terry Jacob saw the story on the front page of High Plains Journal on Jan. 14 it really hit home. The story on the cover of the Farm Shop issue was about protecting your farm from theft. A topic that Jacob and his neighbors in central Kansas know about from personal experience.
The theft of span wire from center-pivot irrigation units in Reno, Harvey, and Sedgwick counties has become a big problem. Thieves steal the wire that runs the length of the irrigation units, burn the insulation off, and then sell the copper wire. They only get about $200 for their trouble, but it costs producers $10,000 in labor and equipment to replace the span wire.
Jacob's first experience with this crime was last fall when he went to move a pivot and found all of the span wire was gone.
"Then people all around us began losing span wire or discovering that they had lost span wire," Jacob said.
It is not only a big problem for farmers but also for the companies that insure these irrigation units. When companies first began insuring center-pivot irrigation units, the main peril was wind. In central Kansas, as well as other regions, the main peril today is span wire theft.
"What we are afraid of is that insurance companies will stop offering this coverage on center pivots because there have been so many losses," Bill Charlsen, Charlsen Insurance Agency, Inc., said. "One way or another they are not going to keep taking losses like this."
Producers, local law enforcement, and insurance agents agree that prosecution of these criminals is the best deterrent but property crimes, even felony property crimes like these, do not make it to the top of the priority list for many district attorneys. In January a man was arrested for stealing fuel from a farm, then was released on bond and a week later he was arrested for stealing span wire.
Reno County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Corey Graber said criminals typically don't go to prison for property crimes until they really start to stack up. There are so many cases in the system that property crimes often get pled down to a misdemeanor and settled without jail time.
"We need to stick with them with the maximum sentence and get them prosecuted and do it the right way through the court system," Jacob said. "We need to do the maximum sentence on them."
Jacob and his neighbors have tried everything from hiring extra help to babysit the pivot units all night to using game cams to catch these thieves in the act. Recently, Josh Carmichael, Carmichael Irrigation, found a device that has the potential to help their situation.
The WireRat, developed by Netirrigate, is a cellular device attached to the span wire on the pivot unit. Only one unit is needed per pivot no matter how many towers it has. If some one tampers with or cuts the span wire the WireRat contacts the owner by text message, voice call, or email within 30 seconds. Carmichael said the device could be programmed to contact up to 10 people.
As of January this year Carmichael had installed 150 of these units. Nationally the WireRat has helped police catch 19 people stealing span wire from center pivot irrigation units. If thieves decided to take the WireRat along with the span wire it has a built in GPS tracking chip and police can follow them wherever they go.
One of those devices was on a center-pivot unit owned by Bruce Seiler. Not long after installing the device Seiler received a text message from the device that the span wire on one of his center pivots had been cut. At first he thought it might be a malfunction but he decided to go check the unit.
Seiler received the text at 12:10 a.m., and 16 minutes later he was at the pivot. The thieves were still there, rolling up the span wire. As he shined the lights from his wife's Toyota van on the thieves he was dialing 911.
At this point the thieves took off across the field dragging span wire behind them and Seiler gave chase. Seiler chased them down dirt roads and paved highways with the coiled up span wire whipping around taking out road signs and kicking up crushed rock along the way. Eventually the sheriff's department caught up with Seiler and took over the chase. The thieves eluded the sheriffs, but they were able to recover what was left of the damaged span wire.
Law enforcement officials do not recommend that individuals chase or attempt to apprehend the thieves themselves. Most of all farmers need to be observant.
"Give us a call if you see someone who does not belong, Harvey County Undersheriff Todd Hanchett said. "Give us a detailed description of the vehicle, tag number, and a description of people in the truck or car. These people are out there scouting places in the day to rob at night."
Hanchett said definitely don't go after them with a gun. He said shooting them would get the farmers in more trouble than the thieves. The only time deadly force is legal is when your life is being threatened.
Officer Graber said one of the problems with this kind of theft is that during the off-season farmers may not check on their irrigation units for several weeks. When they do find span wire is gone, there is no way to know exactly when it was stolen.
"We will get hit in an area a couple of times and then it will quiet down for awhile," Graber said. "They hit us and then move to another area and let some time pass before they return to the same area."
Jacob, his neighbors, insurance companies, and law enforcement want these thefts to stop. They all agree that best way to do this is to send a message to potential thieves by catching someone stealing span wire and giving them the maximum sentence the law allows.
Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-749-5304 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.