A Colorado company has filed a lawsuit against Derek and Lesa Schwanebeck of Ellsworth, as well as John Odom of Lewellen, with regard to losses suffered due to alleged negligence of cattle put on the Schwanebecks’ land.
According to the lawsuit, Three Forks Ranch Corporation — which is organized under the laws of the State of Wyoming but which has its principal place of business in Colorado — operates a lodge and working cattle ranch about 40 miles north of Steamboat Springs, Colo. The Schwanebecks run a grazing operation and contract with cattle owners, and for a fee they promise to supervise, feed, manage and care for cattle herds.
Odom is an employee for the Schwanebecks and responsible for daily care of all cattle under contract between the Schwanebecks and cattle owners.
On or about April 1 of this year, Three Forks and the Schwanebecks entered into a contract grazing agreement. Under this agreement, the couple would graze 603 bred cows and 22 bulls owned by Three Forks during the summer. Further, the Schwanebecks would be responsible for treatment of any sick cattle and for injured or dead cattle caused by them. The Schwanebecks also agreed to communicate on the cattle’s condition and performance, including death loss and other relevant details.
The fee for the services would be $46.50 per head per month, for a total $29,062.50 per month on the contract term, April 1 through Nov. 12. Three Forks also planned to sell at least 600 of the bred cows in their herd to another grazing operation in Nebraska, at a price of $1,500 per head.
In April the cattle were delivered, and the lawsuit states they “were in excellent condition upon arrival, and the bred cows were primed to give birth to their calves. The bred cows began birthing their calves a few weeks after they arrived in Nebraska.”
Three Forks employees traveled to the Schwanebecks’ pastures on July 16 to inspect, vaccinate and brand the baby calves, about 575 in total, all of which appeared vibrant and healthy. It was also noted the pastures were in good shape with adequate forage. Neither of the Schwanebecks were present for the branding, though Odom was there in the late afternoon.
Though June, July and August, Derek Schwanebeck repeatedly assured Three Forks their cattle were doing well, but on Sept. 2 he reported several dead calves due to what was believed to be a “disease outbreak.” Employees of the Three Forks arrived at the pasture on Sept. 3 and doctored 46 calves with antibiotics and saw over 20 dead calves where cows were grazing.
The lawsuit claims the disease outbreak statement was false, and that the claves died due to malnourishment. Further, it claims the Schwanebecks and Odom had not been caring for the calves or rotating them to other pastures in the manner originally promised, and nearby pastures had plenty of forage but were blocked by electric fences.
The herd was moved to corrals for feeding and treatment with alfalfa hay, and was later put on a pasture with more forage. A local veterinarian examined the herd on Sept. 5 and reported the surviving cows had a body condition score of 4, showing signs of starvation and adequate nutrition.
According to the lawsuit, about 20% of the cows were dry and not lactating, with shrunken udders and no signs of sucking from calves. Of the surviving calves, 20% had femurs showing, and 10-15% were overly lethargic, appeared weak, had cloudy nasal discharge and heavy labored breathing. The other 85-90% had diminished hides and concave midsections.
In total, 87 calves — 15% of the total crop — and 12 cows perished. Three Forks employees were able to improve the remaining cattle’s condition, with the vet observing some cows gained up to 150 pounds between Sept. 5 and Oct. 12. Only 208 of the bred cows were suitable for sale, according to the lawsuit. An additional 161 bred cows were sold at bargain prices and 219 open — not pregnant — cows were sold at a nominal price.
The lawsuit claims Derek Schwanebeck refused to accept any responsibility, and that the couple breached the contract by failing to properly care for and supervise the Three Forks cattle. It claims “Three Forks has sustained damages in excess of $500,000, which includes the value of the deceased cows and calves, lost revenue related to the low pregnancy rates among the surviving cows, lost revenue associated with the poor condition of the surviving cows, costs of alfalfa hay and medication to nurture the herd back to health, and other out-of-pocket expenses.”
Charges being brought against the Schwanebecks include breach of contract, negligence, fraudulent concealment and conversion. Odom has been charged with negligence as well.