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A dying breed

A calf suckles from its mothers udder in the snow Friday morning at the Cerise Ranch. (Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times)
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PITKIN COUNTY Rory Cerise was shaking his head Friday morning. Glancing at his young calves taking refuge under a shelter, the third-generation Roaring Fork Valley rancher realized he was losing another life-and-death struggle – one that has been plaguing his ranch all winter.”It’s not going to make it,” Cerise said.A little brown calf laid listlessly on the ground of the shelter that was shielding it from the blowing snow outside. It struggled to its feet only after Cerise jabbed a syringe filled with an antibiotic into its flank. The calf put up a meager struggle when he forced a tube filled with a pink, Pepto Bismol-like fluid into its mouth.In a shed 40 yards away, a black calf still lay where it died the previous night.All in the family for 64 yearsEven in the best of times, ranching is a tough business. Hard work is always required. There are veterinarian bills. Supplies are needed. If the hay crop fails or falls short during the winter, ranchers are scrambling for adequate feed until spring.Beef prices fluctuate wildly, so income is uncertain. Sometimes the hard work pays off. Sometimes it doesn’t.The Cerise family has toiled away for 64 years on a spread close to where Hooks Lane and Emma Road converge under the shadow of the Crown. The ranch is eye-catching because of the beautiful old white Victorian home with green trim.Rory’s grandparents, Posic and Ollie, bought the property in 1944 as a potato farm and eventually began cattle ranching. Rory’s dad Buddy moved in at age 9, eventually taking it over with his wife Lavania. Rory, 48, was born and raised there, and now he works it with his wife Lucy.The Cerises have one of the last working cattle ranches in the Roaring Fork basin. They are among about a half-dozen families still trying to make a living from cow-calf operations.Scours, a type of dysentery in cattle, is sweeping through Cerise’s herd, killing nine calves out of 65 born on the ranch so far this season.”We’ve lost more calves this year than the last 18, 20 years,” Cerise said. “If we lose two it’s usually a bad year.”

Calving season is criticalCalving season is critical because it produces stock, which ranchers sell in the fall or the following spring.”You either make money or die in calving season,” Cerise said.The Cerises have 112 cows calving this year. They put their six bulls in with their heifers on April 24. The gestation period is roughly 40 weeks.That means late February and early March is a busy time on the Cerise ranch. Of the 65 calves born so far this winter, about 30 came in a flurry over the last 10 days. The Cerises expect 45 more calves.While a pasture is usually used as a nursery, the Cerises have separated their herd between a pasture and a large corral this year to try to slow the spread of scours. Scours is a viral infection that is spread numerous ways, including through bovines or via birds.It can be an issue every calving season, but rarely to this degree. The outbreak and resulting deaths will affect the ranch’s bottom line by taking away income, but also because of unanticipated medical expenses from veterinarian bills and antibiotics.It probably doesn’t make sense economically to spend the money necessary to try to keep all the calves alive, Rory said, but he feels compelled to try.”A lot of people may feel they’re just animals, but when you’re responsible for them it makes it tough,” he said. “It kills me to see the little babies die like that. They don’t deserve it. They don’t even get a chance.”

Losses mounting for ranchA calf weighs between 65 and 100 pounds when born and gains weight immediately when healthy. When scours strikes, diarrhea saps its energy and prevents it from putting on weight. “They’re just barely living at that point,” Cerise said.With luck, Cerise hopes to prevent scours from spreading. With treatment, he hopes some of the sick will survive.The Cerises sell their calves to a feedlot in November, when they weigh between 600 and 700 pounds. Beef prices for that size are currently around $600 to $700.”With 11 dead you can do the math,” Cerise said. Their losses could be $7,700 and mounting.Although Cerise feels bad about the deaths, he said it is a regular part of business. Last year, they didn’t lose any calves. “I guess it catches up with you, I don’t know how else to put it,” he said.Mother Nature has also made ranching a little tougher in the valley this winter. Snow and cold have hung around the midvalley for longer stretches than usual, meaning the Cerises have had to feed more hay. It’s also forced them to take emergency action to assist some of the calves.Lucy, a ski instructor at Snowmass, said the Aspen Skiing Co. is gracious enough to let her take days off at this critical time on the ranch. She and Rory take turns patrolling the pasture and corral at night. They check to make sure none of the cows have complications during birth.Lucy discovered a newborn calf lying on the frozen ground, glazed with frost at 2 a.m. Friday. She woke up Rory, for fear the calf wouldn’t survive.”I made this contraption out of two snowboards and half a dog kennel that you could pull along the frozen ground,” Rory said. They intended to take the calf to a shed but decided to bring him in their house. He basked in the warmth until 7 a.m. then was returned to his mom.Questions for the futureThis is the last season of struggles on this scale for the Cerises. The majority of the ranch was sold to Tom Waldeck, who will develop some homes but also will maintain agricultural uses in a unique type of subdivision.Buddy and Lavania are moving further downvalley. Rory and Lucy will remain at the ranch, but will reduce the herd by about half.Although ranching is in Rory’s blood, he said he sometimes questions what he does.”A lot of what we do in the cattle industry is an ugly thing,” he said. “You know, I walk around at night and look at these guys and I think, ‘They’re only going to live 18 months.’ They kill ’em in the prime of their life for eating. And I think, ‘Well, what in the hell am I doing – contributing to death.”That’s the irony of trying to save the calves from scours, he noted. But for now, that struggle for survival is what counts.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.


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