As we reported here earlier this week 1,100 head of cattle worth around $1.4 million have vanished from a Panhandle dairy belonging to the Braum’s restaurant chain. The disappearance of the Holstein / Jersey calves was discovered during the company’s annual inventory at their 24,000-acre farm on the Oklahoma / Texas line east of Follett, about 125 miles northeast of Amarillo.

The logistics of the heist are mind-boggling. Braum’s officials have told the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association that they estimate the missing calves to have weighed between 300 and 750 pounds each at the time of their disappearance. (A time they can’t pinpoint to anything more specific than “sometime last year.” And the cattle were neither branded nor photographed either.) Let’s say each of the calves tipped the scales at 500 pounds, and the thieves had a huge 36-foot cattle trailer at their disposal, one capable of hauling about 37 calves. Under those parameters, that would come to 30.29 trailer-loads of Jersey / Holsteins.

Seriously? At least 30 trailers full of bawling calves just vanished? It’s almost easier to believe a scenario like this:

But seriously, that would strongly suggest, as our own Jeff Winkler pointed out, that the operation was carried out Johnny Cash-style: “One Piece at a Time.” It seems highly doubtul that the thieves could have mobilized an immense convoy of giant cattle trucks and hauled them all off at the same time.

A closer look at some more numbers is illustrative of the just how substantial Braum’s loss is. Last year Oklahoma ranchers claimed $4.5 million in losses due to rustling; at $1.4 million, this Braum’s caper would represent more than a quarter of the whole Sooner State’s total loss in an entire year. In 2012, the sum total of California ranchers reported 1,317 stolen or missing cattle, a mere 200 more than vanished from that one Follett facility. The TSCRA’s 30 rangers represent 16,500 cattle producers who collectively own 4 million cattle, and each year they recover $5 million in stolen cattle and related assets. Should they recover each of the lost Braum’s calves it would boost their yearly total by more than 20 percent.

“It’s as big as I’ve heard about in my lifetime,” Anthony N. Ruiz, a livestock production agent with the State of Kansas, tells the Daily Post. “The sheer number of cattle and their high value in today’s market is something of epic proportions.”

News of the heist has gone viral in cattle-raising circles. Reaction on bovine-centric message boards and social media ranged from wistful (“Man I wish I had enough cattle to not notice 1000 steers missing”) and incredulous (the theory that Braum’s inventory-taking is not up to snuff) to vengeful (“Hang ‘em high, like we used to”).

Oklahoma cattle cop Jerry Flowers likes to say that rustling has been around since “Moby Dick was a minnow,” and while it’s still strongly associated with the Old West, cattle theft (some dislike the term “rustling,” claiming it romanticizes the crime) never went away. Indeed it has only surged since the killer drought of 2011 ushered in a statewide beef shortage. (The resurgent criminality is not confined to meat on the hoof; briskets and beef fajitas are walking out of restaurant and supermarket coolers statewide.) Cattle cops claim that “the meth community” is responsible for most of the rustling, and nowadays, the sale of a few steers can keep you tweaking for weeks.

Rustling’s renaissance has come in spite of increased criminal penalties ushered in five years ago. Today, a first offender can be sentenced to ten years in prison, and repeat offenders can get much stiffer sentences.

Take Carl Wade Curry of the East Texas town of Athens, who was sentenced to 99 years in prison four years ago after he was convicted of conning a Mississippi rancher out of 400 cows. Curry was more of a white-collar rustler. He favored fake IDs, bogus checks, and deliveries to fraudulent addresses over the old-school midnight cattle-truck raids on lonely herds. And it worked, for a time. According to testimony at his trial, Curry made off with more than 2,000 cattle between 2007 and 2011.

(Photos: AP Images at top; Getty Images at bottom.)