BAY CENTER — At Rose Ranch in Bay Center, the rain is a blessing and a curse. In ideal amounts, the rain provides a perpetual smorgasbord of green grass for their hundreds of grazing cattle. This winter, however, excess rain has created unique challenges as hundreds of calves are being born in some of the harshest conditions. The Rose family also worries about the water carrying contaminants from the ranch into Willapa Bay.
“We get 90 inches of rain,” said Bob Rose, 80, owner of Rose Ranch. “It’s good and bad.” Rose said that the rainwater washes everything away and that the mud mixed with saltwater rusts everything that isn’t galvanized, but there’s a silver lining.
“We don’t fertilize, irrigate or have a lot of fencing to do — the sloughs are our fences,” he said.
During three-week span in February, nearly 300 calves are born on the ranch. It’s a tedious time of year with some of the most trying conditions.
“This time of year we’re calving,” Jim Rose, 54, said Sunday, Feb. 19. “I hop on the four-wheeler and drive around and tag calves.” Tagging calves is the early morning routine, up to a dozen are born a day.
“Calving can be frustrating if the weather doesn’t cooperate,” he said.
“You have a couple hundred calves on the ground and it starts to get muddy and they get the sick and you’ve got trouble.”
From grass fed to feedlot
At one time, all the cattle on Rose Ranch were grass-fed, slaughtered and sold at nearby butcher shops. Now, cattle are taken to feedlots to finish on a custom feed before they are slaughtered. The meat is sold in stores and restaurants across the U.S. and abroad. The majority of beef consumed in the U.S. comes from feedlots, but grass-fed beef has been gaining popularity. Demand for grass-fed beef has grown by at least 25 percent each year for the past decade, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Grass-fed beef now represents up to 6 percent of the beef market. But not everyone is convinced the grass-fed beef industry will continue to flourish.
“I’ve raised grass-fed beef my whole life and it’s not going to go far because grain-fed beef is so far superior,” Bob said.
He believes the premium price paid for grass-fed beef will likely keep it to a niche market.
“It’s popular right now, but I don’t see it going very far,” he said.
“My dad butchered and if he could find an old milk cow to feed a little grain to in March or April, he thought he had good meat for the butcher shop. It was nothing like the grain-fed beef that we have now. We have good beef year around.”
Cattle are cornerstone in Washington
While aquaculture, milk and cranberries account for the primary agriculture in Pacific County, cattle are a top-five commodity in Washington, representing $706 million industry, according to the state Department of Agriculture. Washington’s 37,249 farms account for 12 percent of the state economy and employ 160,000 workers. The overall value of the food and agriculture industry in Washington is estimated at $51 billion. In Pacific County, there are 330 farms valued at $37 million.
Ranching post recession
The beef industry is still reeling from the 2008 recession.
“During the recession people started eating more chicken and less beef — it’s cheaper.” Jim said. He said he believes the demand for beef is beginning to return, but still isn’t near what it was.
In 2015, 24.8 billion pounds of beef were eaten in the U.S., according to the USDA. Consumption has slowly declined from 27.9 billion pounds in 2002. The Rose family said they think it’s largely because of negative publicity about hormones and antibiotics in feed.
“People think it’s in the meat and it’s changing the hormone levels in their kid or whoever is eating it,” Jim said.
A pellet is placed in the ear of cattle that slowly releases hormones into their bloodstream causing them to grow faster, he said. The hormones also make the meat leaner with less fat.
“It has gotten a lot of negative publicity, but we’ve been doing it for 50 years.” Since the 1950s, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a number of steroid hormone drugs for use in beef cattle and sheep, including natural estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and their synthetic versions.
“You put a dollar in their ear, you get 25 extra pounds back,” Jim said. “For $1 in, you get $50 back — who’s not going to do that?”
Bob has seen a change in ranching technology and genetics during the past 80 years.
“The biggest difference is transportation,” Bob said.
“It made a tremendous change. For years we were buying Holstein heifers out of Wisconsin. You couldn’t do that when Dad was chasing them on foot from Nahcotta.”
When Bob’s father first sold cattle in Portland, they were taken to the city by train. The two-day ride was rough on cattle. Today, the ranch can send cattle to a sale barn in Toppenish or a feedlot in Moses Lake in few hours. The genes of modern cattle are also superior and continue to improve, Jim said.
“And it’s only going to get better with the new DNA testing,” he said.
“You can take a sample out of a cow’s ear and send it in. They can tell you how suitable their genes are for growth and marbling and you can use that information in selecting which bulls you want to breed.”
The Internet has also helped modern farmers.
“It’s amazing what you can do with your phone,” Jim said. “You can breakdown out in the field and have the [equipment] part the next morning.”
Rose Farm future
Today, the biggest concern for the Rose family isn’t the growing demand for chicken or misconceptions about modern farming. They want to continue their family tradition of raising cattle on Willapa Bay tideland.
“The biggest concern is they’ll make us get our cattle off the tideland,” Bob said, glancing out his dining room window. An exceptionally rainy season has him worried about contamination getting into Willapa Bay. After months of heavy rain, much of the lowland area of the ranch is saturated with standing water in spots that is precariously close to sloughs that flow into delicate shellfish beds to the west. Concerns over contamination from Rose Ranch have grown in recent years with the rise of environmental regulation, particularly on tidelands and wetlands.
“I think we’re alright if the damn environmentalists don’t get us,” Bob said.