As feed prices surge, cattle suffer
Some animals left to starve in Nebraska
BUTTE, Neb. - The dead were stacked in two piles - 70 cows in one, 30 in another -in the crevices of this scenic, hilly ranch country where cattle outnumber people.
Carl Schuman, a former county prosecutor who owned the cattle with his two brothers, has one theory of what happened earlier this year on his ranch: They died "mostly of old age, and some younger ones got pneumonia."
But state investigators think the animals might have starved to death in overgrazed pastures.
Investigators haven't had to go out of their way to find dead cattle in Nebraska, where 6.5 million head roam. Since early this year, three cases of alleged starvation deaths involving a total of about 240 cattle have been reported in Nebraska - more than some officials can recall.
The state attorney general has been investigating the Schuman ranch deaths since shortly after the carcasses were found March 15. No charges have been filed.
A case of alleged neglect surfaced earlier this month in southeastern Nebraska near Fairbury. Officials said they found many of the cows in a herd of about 80 near death at a defunct dairy farm.
Another case came in late April, when 25 cattle carcasses were found in a Merrick County pasture just outside of Grand Island. Ted Robb and Dustin Dugan pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of improper disposal of carcasses after felony animal neglect charges were dropped. They now face fines instead of jail time.
And in January, 111 cattle were found starved to death and another 140 emaciated in Red Willow County. Charges were never filed against the owner.
"Neglect cases are on the rise, and what's causing it, I'm not sure," said Steven Stanec, executive director of the Nebraska Brand Committee, a state agency that helps police the livestock industry.
"We're having whole herds of hundreds of cattle being neglected," Stanec said.
Stanec and others say the cases from early this year don't share a clear-cut cause. But, he said, "I would say the higher price of feed has something to do with it."
In recent months the cost of hay has risen by about 80 percent, adding to the already high costs of other feed caused by lofty corn prices, which have slipped recently.
High commodity and fuel prices have prompted some farmers to stop raising hay, which is mostly used to feed cattle in the winter and early spring, said Neil Tietz, editor of Hay & Forage magazine. Tietz said hay prices are "certainly the highest I've ever seen."
And even with the recent drops in oil and commodity prices, Tietz expects hay prices to creep higher this coming winter, which could cause even more cases of starvation.
Livestock analysts and those who track animal abuse cases nationally, including the Humane Society of the United States, say they don't know whether livestock neglect cases are on the rise across the country.
But they predict high hay prices will lead to more cattle herds slowly wasting away from starvation in remote pastures.
"We are going to have more cases of this," said Temple Grandin, professor of animal science at Colorado State University. She said starvation, which can often take months to cause death, is the worst type of animal abuse.
"There's no excuse for livestock starving to death," Grandin said angrily when told of the Nebraska cases. "You can always sell them. They might not be at a good price, but you can always sell them."
Widely circulated videos recorded by undercover investigators for the Humane Society of the United States showed alleged abuse of livestock in slaughterhouses and sale barns, including a video from early this year of crippled and sick cows at a California slaughterhouse being shoved with forklifts.