Tough times on the range | AspenTimes.com

Tough times on the range

Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

EMMA ” Rory Cerise’s last year as a full-blown cattle rancher is one to remember, even if he’d like to forget.

The third-generation rancher in Emma lost 36 of 112 calves born from February to April as a particularly nasty strain of bovine salmonella swept through his herd.

That caused scours, a type of dysentery in cattle, which affected all but three calves.

Spring, the season of renewal, was largely one of death. Calves perished in Cerise’s corrals during March snowstorms, and they continued dying after the weather improved and he moved his herd onto a higher elevation range later in the spring.

Cattle ranching is never easy. Cerise and his wife, Lucy, are one of a handful of families in the Roaring Fork Valley who still make a living ranching. And all the death made it that much tougher.

“Emotionally it’s not worth it,” said Cerise. “Most people deal with life and death on TV. [On the ranch] it’s not as clean.”

Recommended Stories For You

The ranch has been in his family for 64 years. His grandfather, Posic, bought the land in 1944 near the elbow where Hooks Lane and Emma Road converge. As a lifelong rancher at age 48, Cerise thought he had seen it all, but nothing could prepare him for a year like this; typically, no more than two calves die per year.

The ranch’s veterinarian bills skyrocketed this year. An antibiotic called Exceed seemed to work the best of everything vets tried, “but there was no magic bullet,” Cerise said.

Calves got scours, recovered, then many got it again. Many calves dealt with three rounds of dysentery. Without fail, those that got it a fourth time died, he said.

Cows are commonly considered dumb animals without feeling, but Cerise said he learned that wasn’t true. One cow that lost a calf would eat a small amount each day, then stand in the spot where its calf died. She lost about 400 pounds during her “grieving.”

“You could tell it devastated her when he died,” Cerise said.

Some of the cows that lost calves would appear to participate in caring for the surviving calves once the herd was grazing out on the range, he said.

When a ranch suffers that much loss, there is reduced income along with added expenses. Now is when ranchers sell their calves to livestock handlers who will ship them out to feedlots and fatten them up for the next several months. It’s when ranchers are supposed to be rewarded for hard work.

Cerise has 36 fewer calves to sell. In addition, the majority of the surviving calves weigh less after battling for their lives. Calves should weigh around 600 pounds at this point in their lives. Many of his will come in at 450. With beef prices hovering around $1 per pound, the lower weight adds up.

Cerise figured it cost between $12,000 and $18,000 to work the ranch in 2007. “This year’s a total wash,” he said, referring to the finances.

There was some success, he said. The calves showed a tenacious will to survive. Those that did are doing well.

The future is uncertain. Cerise is selling about one-half of his cows. The majority of the family ranch was sold to Tom Waldeck. He plans to maintain some agricultural uses while developing some homes. Rory and his wife Lucy will remain on the ranch but reduce their herd from 112 to 55 or so cows.

How the salmonella will affect his calves next year is the big question. It is always present in cows, but they are usually able to “shed it,” he said.

Veterinarians and other ranchers are split on how it portends for the future. Some told him salmonella poses no greater threat next year than any other year; others said the deadly strain will remain with his herd now that it hit hard.

“If it happens again, that will probably be the end of ’em,” Cerise said.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.