BREWSTER, Wash. — The head of one of the largest cattle operations in Okanogan County credits government programs for helping it survive devastating wildfires of the past two summers.
The Gebbers family owns a cattle company, a land and timber company, one of the state’s largest tree fruit orchard and packing operations and a golf resort.
Family financial losses, from the 2014 Carlton Complex fire, ranged from $15.4 million to $17.8 million, Cass Gebbers, president and CEO of Gebbers Farms and vice president of Gamble Land & Timber, told Capital Press last July. A lot of that was the loss of about 30 million board feet of timber and a reduction in value of the family’s timber land.
They also lost 326 mother cows, calves, yearlings and bulls in the fire with 25 to 50 percent of that $700,000 to $800,000 loss covered by USDA Farm Service Agency indemnification. They sold 1,000 head of cattle to bring their herd down to a more manageable 3,500 to 3,800 head because of the loss of grazing land.
Even with that, the family trucked about 1,300 mother cows and yearlings, plus calves to various grazing grounds throughout Central Washington as far away as Oroville, Curlew and Benton City.
Emergency use of USDA Conservation Reserve Program land for grazing “has been a life saver. Without it, we probably would have sold most of our cattle and laid off people,” Gebbers said last July.
The family lost 135 miles of cattle fencing estimated at $2.7 million to replace at $20,000 per mile. Government programs will help with that.
In August, the second summer of fires extended the toll.
“We, our employees and our family members, lost almost all of our remaining DNR (state Department of Natural Resources) grazing permit ranges and another chunk of private pasture and timber that didn’t burn in the 2014 Carlton fire,” Gebbers said recently.
More fencing, watering structures and 108 cattle were lost in the 2015 Okanogan fire, he said. As a result, 400 bred cows had to be sold for lack of pasture.
“These cows came right from the heart of our herd so it’s that much more difficult to see them go when we have spent many years developing (through genetics) the kind of cattle that fit our dry, rugged environment,” Gebbers said.
Yet it was the right thing to allow burned rangeland to recover, he said.
“We really had to make tough decisions about buying additional, high-priced feed versus selling down the herd in order to keep going forward. Without the assistance of FSA and NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) regarding the CRP grazing program and fence rebuilding program along with a partial offset for the burned up cattle, there would have been no way to forge ahead with these kind of losses,” Gebbers said.
The family is working closely with DNR, the U.S. Forest Service and state Department of Fish and Wildlife regarding proper grazing levels on unburned or partially burned rangeland and has been aided by its coordinated resource management plan with those agencies, he said.
“The biggest problem is that I have had this cattle bug for most of my life, so for me, the sentimental decisions about what to do with my cows due to these catastrophic fires is much more difficult than the economic ones,” Gebbers said.