SCOTTSBLUFF — A federal lawsuit seeking more than $500,000 in damages has been filed against the owners and operators of a Sandhills ranch who have been accused of letting cattle starve rather than graze them.
According to U.S. District Court records, Three Forks Ranch of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, has sued Nebraska residents Derek Schwanebeck and Lesa Schwanebeck of Ellsworth and John C. Odom of Lewellen.
The Schwanebecks run a grazing business in the Nebraska Sandhills, Cornerstone Grazing, and Odom is their only employee.
In April, according to the suit, Three Forks Ranch and the Schwanebecks entered into a contract, with the Schwanebecks agreeing to graze 603 bred cows and 22 bulls during the summer. The contract was slated to end Nov. 12, at which time Three Forks intended to sell the bred cows to a third party.
The Schwanebecks use a grazing technique called “intensive rotational grazing,” according to the lawsuit, where livestock are rotated between pastures so only a single, defined area is grazed at a time. The lawsuit claims that rotational grazing requires more management and supervision than traditional grazing because overgrazing can quickly occur.
“Overgrazing leads to barren pastures, which can lead to starvation if supplemental food (e.g., hay) is not available.”
Three Forks says in its lawsuit that cattle were delivered to Nebraska in April and were in excellent condition. The bred cows began calving a few weeks later. In July, Three Forks employees branded about 575 calves, all described as being vibrant and healthy. At the time, pastures were described as being in good shape with adequate forage.
From June to August, the suit says, Derek Schwanebeck assured Three Forks personnel that the cattle were doing well. However, on Sept. 2, Derek Schwanebeck contacted Three Forks and told them several calves were dead and blamed a “disease outbreak.” Three Forks employees immediately traveled to Nebraska, where they found 20 dead calves in the pasture and quickly realized that the cattle were “extremely malnourished, having been deprived of nearly all food.”
The lawsuit alleged that neither the Schwanebecks nor Odom had been rotating the cattle as promised. Nearby pastures had ample forage, which was described in the lawsuit as “even more troubling.” Cattle “could see the food but not eat it.”
In total, 87 calves and 12 cows died, the lawsuit alleges, and 161 bred cows were in such poor condition that Three Forks had to sell them “at bargain prices,” and remaining cows had to be sold “at a nominal price.”
Three Forks says in its lawsuit that Derek Schwanebeck has refused to accept any responsibility, including abiding by the contract that the Schwanebecks would be responsible for any sick cows.