Dressed in wool overalls and carrying a pitchfork, Umatilla County Sheriff Terry Rowan looked more like a rancher than a lawman Wednesday morning while pacing the snow-covered pastures at Cedar Creek Cattle Company in Hermiston.
Two weeks earlier, Rowan and deputies arrived at this property on Columbia Lane and South Edwards Road to discover more than a dozen dead cattle and another 15 so malnourished they couldn’t be safely moved. Charges of animal neglect will likely be filed against the herd’s owner, 55-year-old Michael Hockensmith, but in the meantime daily care of the animals has fallen to the sheriff’s office.
On Wednesday, officers recruited about 15 students from Blue Mountain Community College to help round up the cows for tagging and immunizations. A local veterinarian was also on hand to assess each animal’s body condition.
By day’s end, Rowan said they processed 185 cattle with another eight still to go. The death toll, which had been 14 animals, is now 17, including a two-year-old heifer found dead early Wednesday morning. A necropsy determined the heifer, which was seven and a half months pregnant, had suffered from a bacterial disease and congestive heart failure.
“She had a rough life,” said Brent Barton, veterinarian with the Oregon Trail Veterinary Clinic in Hermiston.
Upon investigation, Rowan said it appears the cattle were neglected over an extended period of time. There was no hay when officers first showed up weeks earlier, and water troughs had frozen over with 6-8 inches of ice.
“We have some really malnourished animals we’ve been contending with,” Rowan said.
Rowan said they expect to file multiple charges of first- and second-degree animal neglect against Hockensmith in the coming days. Jake Kamins, Oregon’s deputy district attorney dedicated solely to animal cases, has been brought on as a special prosecutor.
Hockensmith has not returned multiple calls by the East Oregonian for comment.
The sheriff’s office has already spent several thousand dollars caring for the cattle, Rowan said. It also takes time and manpower to make sure the animals are properly fed, and to break through ice in the water troughs.
“It always stretches your resources,” Rowan said. “At the same time, it’s worthwhile. You hate to see the animals neglected.”
Their goal Wednesday was to tag each of the cattle and give them much-needed vaccines, such as de-wormer and multi-mineral injection to boost their immune system. To do that, students from Matt Liscom’s beef production class at BMCC joined the team to round up reluctant cattle and run them through the loading chutes.
From there, the animals were ushered one by one into a metal squeeze chute designed to hold them still, where Barton could perform his assessment. Some cattle thrashed, struggled and even fell down inside the contraption, getting themselves stuck in the process.
“They’re not used to people handling them,” Barton said. “Essentially, they’re pretty tender creatures right now. They’ve already been through quite a cold spell.”
Liscom, who works as an agriculture science instructor at BMCC, said they were contacted by the sheriff’s office last week to lend a hand, and he decided it would be a valuable educational opportunity for his beef production students.
“We had a lab day anyway, so it worked out well that we could help out the county as well as learn,” Liscom said.
Liscom said the class was not there to pass any judgment, or to determine who is right and who is wrong in the case.
“We’re just here to help care for these animals as best we can,” he said.
When it comes to cattle care, providing enough food and water is critical to the animals’ survival. Chris Schachtschneider, a professor of livestock and rangeland with Oregon State University Extension Service, said cows need to eat at least 2.5 percent of its body weight in dry feed every day.
Otherwise, Schachtschneider said the animals lose their fat reserves and the body essentially begins to eat away at muscles and other internal organs. Once that happens, it can be hard to reverse.
“If they’re too far down that road, successful recovery is very unlikely,” he said.
This year’s unusually intense winter has caused some issues for local ranchers, Schachtschneider said, especially for those cows that have already begun calving. Schachtschneider said he’s seen instances where ranchers are bringing calves inside and using hairdryers to keep them warm.
But as long as the animals have good feed and good water, Schachtschneider said they tend to withstand cold fairly well.
“The animals are really resilient to (the weather) if they have proper nutrition,” he said.
Dave Grimes, lab technician for BMCC’s agriculture department, worked on a ranch in Athena for 32 years and said inclement weather definitely makes things more challenging in the fields. However, ranchers should have an obligation to their animals.
“No matter what, they’ve got to be worked,” Grimes said. “They’ve got to be taken care of.”
Contact George Plaven at email@example.com or 541-966-0825.