By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
The choice of crops was important. The Colorado Department of Health's Water Quality Control Division wanted the effluent kept out of groundwater aquifers and surface water sources such as creeks and rivers. While the water presented potential problems because of salt and bacteria, the principal concern of the health department was nitrates, which have been proven hazardous to both humans and animals. The beer company's solution was to spray the effluent on vegetation that could naturally metabolize the nitrates, keeping them out of the water supply.
With research help from scientists at CSU, the company chose alfalfa and bromegrass, two crops that could be sold as animal feed. An Anheuser-Busch subsidiary called Nutri-Turf would run the effluent irrigation project and market the hay it produced. A chunk of Weld County farmland was chosen to serve as the application site; it would expand to more than 1,400 acres as the plant's beer production boomed. The project would be the first venture into hay-growing for Nutri-Turf, which until then had limited its operations to raising sod for landscaping purposes.
In the summer of 1988, the Tuckers were approached by Duane Sellmer, manager of Nutri-Turf's hay operation. "He said they were just starting up and they had a limited amount of premium hay," says Chuck Tucker. "He said it was good hay, dairy-quality hay." The Tuckers bought 600 tons.
(In legal motions later filed in Weld County District Court, Anheuser-Busch attorneys John DeSisto and Mark Lillie of the law firm of Kirkland and Ellis denied that Nutri-Turf claimed the hay was appropriate feed for dairy cows. The Tuckers, they wrote, "assumed the risk" in buying the hay. Sellmer's characterization of the product as "good hay" was merely his opinion, not a warranty, the attorneys added.)
The Tuckers began feeding the Nutri-Turf hay to their cows the following winter. That, they say, is when their problems began. Milk production began a puzzling decline.
The problems grew worse in the summer of 1989, when the Tuckers purchased another 230 tons of Nutri-Turf hay. Cows seemed sick; calves were born with minor deformities and diminished intelligence. Some had great difficulty nursing from a bottle, a transition that most calves make in a day. "They were taking three or four days to take a bottle," says Iven's wife, Irene. "They were too dumb to drink." An inability to nurse, she says, caused one bull calf to starve.
During that time, the Nutri-Turf hay was ground and mixed with hay from Wyoming as well as with other feed, says Iven Tucker--a process the family believes masked its harmful effects and made it more difficult to pinpoint the source of the problem. The dairy's milk production continued its decline.
The Tuckers examined one possible cause after another, hiring a succession of nutrition consultants and dairy specialists. They investigated the possibility of stray voltage in the milking barn and vacuum problems with the milking equipment. They watched the cows, noting meticulously how they walked in and out of the milking pens, the way they mingled in the corrals, their social pecking orders. The family came up empty. Milk production continued to fall.
While the Tuckers were trying to determine what was making their cows sick, Colorado State University was experiencing problems of its own. In 1989, Gary Greathouse, an associate professor of animal sciences who had run the school's research ranch operation for ten years, bought a supply of Nutri-Turf hay. The feed was intended for CSU's 600-head cattle herd at Maxwell Ranch, located in the hills six miles north of Livermore.
In February 1990, cows began "going down" after feeding on the hay, Greathouse said in a September 1991 deposition taken by the Tuckers' Greeley attorney, Robert Ray. The stricken cattle lacked the coordination to get up again, according to Greathouse, who suspended the feeding and put the herd on a different diet. Though the animals recovered, Greathouse made inquiries about the hay to Anheuser-Busch and obtained a sample of the brewery effluent for testing. Lab analysis turned up nothing of concern.
By early March 1990, the ranch manager had resumed feeding Nutri-Turf hay to CSU's cows. Within a few days, he told Ray during the deposition, two animals went down. Then a bad snowstorm hit. Four feet of wet spring snow made roads impassable, preventing ranch hands from reaching a herd of 200 cows, which was left with only Nutri-Turf hay to feed on. When Greathouse got a Sno-Cat to the pasture three days later, he found several dead cows and several others down. Though he had the hay removed, he lost seventeen head over the next few days. Cattle in other pastures that had fed on native hay during the storm suffered no problems, Greathouse said.
The university then decided to have the Nutri-Turf hay tested at a laboratory run by Monfort, the Greeley meat-packing concern. According to Greathouse's deposition testimony, those tests revealed high levels of nitrates in the Nutri-Turf hay. Greathouse contacted the plant manager at the brewery and notified him that CSU expected to be reimbursed for its losses. On March 19, Duane Sellmer and an associate met Greathouse at the ranch and took samples of the hay to do their own testing, said Greathouse, who also had the Colorado Department of Agriculture sample and test the suspect feed.