This summer's high beef prices have sparked a rash of cattle rustling in four central Virginia counties, according to state authorities.

Madison County, about 80 miles southwest of Washington, has been hit the hardest, with 18 cows and nine calves stolen from farms since April. Sheriff's officials also said 19 pigs and hundreds of dollars in farm equipment have been stolen during the late-night raids.

Thefts also have been reported in Fauquier, Rappahannock and Albemarle counties, and officials said the same rustlers may be responsible.

Law enforcement officials in those counties plan to meet next week to share information. Representatives from Prince William and Loudoun also have been invited, though no thefts have been reported in those counties.

This year's beef prices are at their highest levels since a 1979 beef shortage sent prices skyrocketing, said Russell D. Bowe, a livestock economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The price for "slaughter steers" is about $65 per 100 pounds this year, he said. It was approaching $70 in 1979.

But national cattle experts say Virginia's problem is unique because other areas of the country have not reported any increase in stolen cattle.

One Rappahannock farmer who lost a few cows in June said that since the theft, he and neighboring farmers have been taking shifts throughout the night patrolling their farms with guns. "What gets me so mad is that I bale hay all day long and then have to spend the night watching for them," the farmer said.

Lt. Randy Jenkins of the Madison County Sheriff's Department said the raids began in mid-April when several pieces of farm equipment and a Holstein calf were stolen from a few farms one night. At the end of May, one Madison farm lost a liquid nitrogen tank used to store semen for artificial breeding. Since then, several more calves have been reported missing every few weeks.

"It's almost like they're trying to build a farm from scratch," Jenkins said.

The worst raid in Madison came on July 1 when one farm lost eight 900-pound Angus cows and three calves, leading authorities to rule out a pickup truck as the escape vehicle. "We don't know whether it's a truck or a trailer," Jenkins said. "To get that many, it would have to be bigger than a pickup."

The rustlers used grain to lure the cattle toward fences bordering public roads and then led them up inclines into their vehicles, Jenkins said.

Jenkins said cattle thieves have never been so aggressive. "We would have an isolated case now and then, but nothing spread over this period of time involving both equipment and livestock," he said.

Rappahannock had two incidents in June in which five calves and three 1,000-pound cows were stolen during the night. "They apparently backed the truck right up to the fence," said Capt. Edward G. Streapy of the Rappahannock County Sheriff's Department.

Officials reported five 1,000-pound heifers and one 1,300-pound bull missing from a Fauquier farm. Last week, seven cows were taken from a farm in Albemarle.

Law enforcement officers in all four counties say they now routinely stop large trucks with cattle racks at night. "We've been stopping everything all summer," Streapy said. "But no luck."

Officials said the thefts in all four counties may involve the same person or group of people, but they declined to disclose any leads in the joint investigation.

Charles E. Ball, director of information in Washington for the National Cattleman's Association, said, "We have not heard about an increase in rustling nationwide, although it kind of makes sense considering the increased beef prices."

Thomas W. Wagner, secretary/treasurer of the Maryland Cattleman's Association, said that state has not experienced any major cattle rustling. "Once in a while there's one missing," he said.

Beef prices are approaching the record levels of 1979 but are not expected to exceed them, Bowe said.