In the best of times, operating a cattle ranch in Eagle County is a challenging proposition.
But for the Scott family of Sweetwater, challenge has turned to heartbreak over the past year.
Keith and Kendra Scott of the Eight Bar Ranch, a fifth generation family owned and operated cow/calf ranch in the Derby Mesa area, have had a string of exceptionally bad luck hit since last winter.
During the summer, the Scotts run their cattle on leased private land as well as U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service property. They then winter the cattle on their own ranch in Burns.
“We have 400 head of commercial cows and had kept 80 head of replacement heifers” said Kendra. “We don’t have enough hay ground to support our herd, so we end up purchasing about half of our hay every year.”
As the Scotts looked for their winter hay feed, they went to a Wyoming farm where they had previously purchased dairy quality alfalfa hay.
“They had a pivot that had been used as pasture, and had a new seeding of Round Up ready alfalfa,” said Kendra. “The alfalfa was planted on a windy day and didn’t come up well, so the hay baled off of this pivot had a high percentage of Kochia weed.”
The Scotts researched Kochia and found that it could be used as a feed, provided it was monitored for nitrates.
Kendra said the hay was tested at the Ward Laboratories in Nebraska, and came back low in nitrates and had good feed values, so the Scotts purchased the whole pivot.
“We trucked the first load of hay home on Dec. 18 and began feeding it the next day,” said Kendra.
First signs of trouble
The Scotts divide their cattle into three separate groups. The first contained 80 replacement heifer calves, as well as some open and late cull calves that hadn’t yet been vaccinated. This group was placed in the ranch corral.
“We had planned to finishing shipping these cull cows after New Year’s” said Kendra.
The second bunch of cattle, a group of 2- and 3-year olds numbered at about 125 head, had been checked and vaccinated on Dec. 9. The third group were mature cows, 4-years old and older. This group numbered around 245 animals, and they also had been checked and vaccinated.
When the Scotts fed their animals on Dec. 19, they distributed two bales of the Wyoming hay to the replacement heifers and cull cows in the corral. The second group also received two bales of the Wyoming hay. The mature cows got two bales of the Wyoming hay and five bales of the Scott’s own hay.
“The next morning when we went out to feed, a few cows were down and some were sick,” said Kendra.
“We called neighbors and veterinarians and began doing necropsies,” she continued. “As we were out working, more cattle were going down all around us.”
Over the next few days, the Scotts lost 162 animals.
“All of the people who saw the cattle and were around the necropsies agreed that the cattle had been poisoned, judging by the trauma to their internal organs, especially their livers, which in some cases were all but completely destroyed,” said Kendra.
The Scotts sent cattle parts, hay samples and water samples to Colorado State University and to other laboratories across the nation.
“We have been on numerous conference calls with nationally recognized veterinary professionals and we still aren’t any closer to knowing the source of the poison,” said Kendra.
She noted that a toxicology lab in Utah purchased some of the same hay, but as of yet they haven’t come up with any conclusive evidence. The source of the toxin that decimated the Scott’s operation is still listed “at large.”
As the family struggles to cope with last winter’s devastating losses, Kendra noted that the solution isn’t as simple as just buying more cows.
“Due to the high elevation summer range and the harsh winter conditions, all of the cattle that we own are cattle that have been bred and raised by our family for generations,” she said. “It is very difficult to find replacement cattle that can thrive in the Burns area.”
She noted that neighboring ranchers who have tried brining in outside cattle have reported a 15 to 25 percent death loss.
“Since we are a small family ranch, we know that it’s highly unlikely that we will ever be able to purchase more land. To offset our feed costs, we have been trying to increase the productivity of our current property by putting in center pivot sprinklers,” Kendra said.
The Scotts had launched their sprinkler project prior to last year’s troubles, but now they are up against deadlines to complete the project.
“This upcoming year’s calf crop was going to pay for our sprinkler,” she noted.
It’s difficult for the family to ask for help, but they noted that donations from a benefit planned Sept. 6 will go toward funding the sprinkler project.
“It’s their turn for some help,” said Debra Dupree Batten, a friend of the Scott family who is organizing the benefit at 4Eagle Ranch. “They really need everyone’s help, otherwise they would never have given me their blessing to do this fund-raiser.”