There was a time in America when it was very unlikely a rancher would face a criminal investigation. Unfortunately, times have changed.

Since the Depression there’s been a steady increase in the number of state and federal regulations and a corresponding growth in the potential for criminal penalties for ranching activities. The Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and the new Food and Drug Administration’s Veterinary Feed Directive contain provisions that heavily impact livestock producers. Violation of any of these laws could hand you a prison sentence and massive fines. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg—every state also has their own animal health, environmental and conservation regulations that carry potential criminal penalties.

With so many laws on the books and so many government agencies crawling around, it is inevitable some ranchers will have contact with law enforcement and you should be prepared for that possibility.

To protect yourself, first make sure you and your employees understand the specific laws and regulations that apply to your operation and get a checklist in place to demonstrate compliance.

Next, you should clearly understand your rights and obligations when dealing with law enforcement. For example, in most criminal investigations, government investigators are required to obtain a search warrant to enter private property. However, some permitted feedyard operations are required to give investigators access to their property at any time. Work with your attorney to determine whether you are required to provide access or information to the government. It’s important to have things squared away before you have an encounter with law enforcement because when the government comes knocking, they almost never call ahead—they just show up. It’s often a chaotic experience, and investigators will try to bully you and rush you into making incriminating statements. I want to leave you with a few general tips for dealing with government investigators:

Legal Course of Action


Brent Haden and his wife, Connie, are founders of Haden & Haden law firm in Columbia, Mo. He was raised on a Missouri farm and attended the University of Missouri and Harvard Law School. They live in rural Boone County, Mo., with three sons. 

Note: This story appeared in the February 2017 issue of Drovers.