Owners of Sandhills grazing operation sued for alleged animal neglect
A Wyoming-based cattle ranch has sued a Nebraska Sandhills couple and their employee in federal court over alleged neglect and starvation of cattle placed in their care which resulted in more than $500,000 in damages, according to the complaint filed Oct. 30 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska.
According to the suit, Three Forks Ranch, which operates a lodge and working cattle ranch on the Wyoming-Colorado border about 40 miles north of Steamboat Springs, entered into a contract grazing agreement On April 1 with Derek and Lesa Schwanebeck of Ellsworth, Nebraska, who operate an unincorporated grazing business called Cornerstone Grazing. The suit states that Schwanebecks practice “intensive rotational grazing” and had approximately 10 pastures spread across Sheridan, Grant and Garden Counties available to graze the Three Forks cattle. The suit also lists Cornerstone’s only employee, John C. Odom, of Lewellen, as a defendant.
On or about April 1, The Schwanebecks took in 603 head of bred cows and 22 bulls owned by Three Forks for the 2020 summer grazing season from April 1, to about Nov. 12, at which point Three Forks intended to sell the bred cows to a third-party cow/calf operation. Three Forks agreed to pay the Schwanebecks $49.50 per head, for a total $29,062.50 per month.
The contract states that Odom would be responsible for the day-to-day care of the cattle, and that the Schwanebecks agreed to doctor any sick cows and be responsible for any injury or death. They also agreed to provide monthly reports about the cattle’s condition, and to notify Three Forks in the event of death loss.
Three Forks says it relied on the Schwanebecks to perform their obligations under the agreement, and in June, it entered into an agreement to sell the bred cows to another Nebraska ranch at the end of the grazing season for $1,500 per head.
The suit states that when the cattle were delivered to the Schwanebecks in April, they were in “excellent condition,” and that the bred cows began calving a few weeks later. In mid-July, several Three Forks employees traveled to Nebraska to inspect, vaccinate, and brand the calves. They branded about 575 calves and reported that they “appeared vibrant and healthy.” The employees reported that the Schwanebecks pastures also appeared to be in good condition with adequate forage.
Neither Derek nor Lesa Schwanebeck were present during the branding, however, the lawsuit states that Odom showed up during the afternoon of July 16 to help finish processing the remaining calves. The suit says that Derek Schwanebeck had repeatedly assured Three Forks via telephone calls throughout June, July and August that its cattle were doing well.
On Sept. 2, the lawsuit says Derek Schwanebeck contacted the Three Forks Ranch foreman Kelly Sewell to inform him that there were several dead calves among the Three Forks cattle, and that he believed the deaths were due to a “disease outbreak.” Sewell and six other Three Forks employees immediately traveled to Nebraska to investigate.
On the early afternoon of Sept. 3, the suit states that five Three Forks employees doctored 46 calves with antibiotics and observed more than 20 dead calves in the pasture where the cows were grazing. The suit says that these employees “quickly realized Derek Schwanebeck’s claim of a ‘disease outbreak’ was false.” The suit says the cattle were extremely malnourished, having been “deprived of nearly all food,” and that based on the employees’ observations it became apparent that the Schwanebecks and Odom had not been rotating the cattle as promised in the agreement.
“Even more troubling, Schwanebeck had multiple pastures nearby with ample forage upon which the Three Forks Cattle could have grazed to avoid starvation,” the suit says. “The Three Forks Cattle were prevented from grazing those pastures by an electric fence, so they could see the food but not eat it.”
At first light the next morning, Sept. 3, seven three forks employees and several neighbors traveled to the pasture where the Three Forks Cattle were grazing. The suit alleges that they observed “pastures devoid of any forage and air full of dust.” Dead calves were observed lying across the pasture and many of the living calves had “dead-looking hair and could hardly walk.”
The herd was slowly moved about a mile to corrals for treatment, and the suit says that roughly 12 of the calves had to be placed into a pickup and horse trailer because they were “too weak to make the one-mile journey.” The calves were immediately treated with strong antibiotics and vaccinations to prevent any further loss, and the suit says that many of the calves “lacked the strength necessary to enter and exit the hydraulic chute.”
Three Forks contacted a local veterinarian to inspect the rest of the herd on Sept. 5. The suit says that the vet observed that the surviving cows had a body composition score of 4 and showed signs of starvation and inadequate nutrition. The suit lists the following:
• About 20% of the cows were dry and not lactating, and their udders were shrunken and showed no signs of sucking from calves. The lactating cows were doing so at minimal levels based on the poor condition of the surviving calves.
• Of the surviving calves, 20% had femurs showing, 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 – all symptoms of starvation or inadequate nutrition.
“Due to the dismal condition of the pastures on which the Three Forks Cattle were forced to graze, the Three Forks cows were unable to produce sufficient milk to feed their calves,” the suit says. “As a result, many calves died of either starvation or bronchopneumonia brought on from the dust in the pasture.”
According to the suit, 87 calves, or 15% of the total calf crop, and 12 cows perished.
Three Forks employees were able to significantly improve the Three Forks Cattle’s condition with medical treatment and supplemental food, and from Sept. 5 to Oct. 12, the vet observed that some cows had gained up to 150 pounds.
However, that was only the beginning. The suit alleges that only 208 of the bred cows were suitable for sale under the June contract that Three Forks had entered into with a third-party Nebraska ranch. An additional 161 bred cows were in such poor condition that Three Forks was forced to sell them at Ogallala Livestock at bargain prices.
The remaining cows – approximately 219 head – were open, and were also sold at Ogallala auction at a nominal price. The surviving calves were transported back to Wyoming, and the suit states that many of them will likely not survive the winter.
The suit alleges that after being confronted by Three Forks, Derek Schwanebeck refused to accept responsibility. The suit says that the cows and calves were malnourished to such an extent that they were near starvation and that diseases were rampant due to their weakened state.
“Meanwhile, Schwanebecks had lush pastures within eyesight of where the Three Forks Cattle were penned,” the suit says. “Defendants just had to move the herd to a neighboring pasture, and the cattle would have thrived all summer long.”
The suit alleges that the Schwanebecks refused to release the cattle onto those pastures because they intended to sell the grass from those pastures in order to further profit from the operation.
“Defendants’ mistreatment of these animals is more than just negligence. It is also cruel,” the suit says. “Defendants were not just cutting corners when providing care for an inanimate object. They refused to feed living, breathing creatures that suffered and slowly starved due to Defendants’ neglect.”
The suit alleges that the Schwanebecks breached their contract by failing to properly care for and supervise the Three Forks Cattle, by failing to graze the Three Forks Cattle in a manner consistent with ordinary prudence, failing to provide adequate pastures for grazing; and failing to provide timely and proper treatment of sick cattle, by failing to provide timely and accurate reports about the condition and performance of the and by failing to provide suitable explanations and responsibility for injured and dead cattle.
The suit alleges four counts; breach of contract, negligence, fraudulent concealment, and conversion on behalf of the Schwanebecks. The fourth count, conversion, alleges that on or about Oct. 9, the Schwanebecks refused to allow Three Forks to remove the Three Forks Cattle from the Schwanebecks’ pastures unless and until Three Forks paid them approximately $20,000 for grazing services in October 2020. A fifth and final count alleges negligence on behalf of Odom.
Three Forks says it sustained losses of $500,000 and seeks actual and punitive damages. Three Forks has asked for a jury trial. The suit was filed by former Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning and two partners in Bruning’s Lincoln firm, the Bruning Law Group, as well as two other attorneys listed as practicing with a Missouri firm.
Court filings list Derek and Lesa Schwanebeck as being represented by North Platte attorney Terrance O. Waite. The Schwanebecks have filed, and been granted, a request asking for an extension to file a response or motion for summary judgment seeking dismissal. The court provides 30 days for the party to respond, which would be Nov. 20, and they have asked to have until Dec. 21 to do so.
Odom is listed as being represented by James R. Korth of Reynolds & Korth in Ogallala, and has been granted an extension of time to file a responsive pleading, and has until Dec. 28 to do so.
At press time, the attorney for the Schwanebecks responded to TSLN but did not have a comment. The attorney for John C. Odom did not respond to TSLN’s communication.