Loss from Lightning: How cattle die, what producers can do about it
for Tri-State Livestock News
As the year progresses, spring rain showers turn into storms with thunder and lightning. While lightning can cause a fire threat, it is also a threat to livestock.
Vaughn Meyer of Reva, SD, has experience with this. A couple of weeks ago, Meyer lost 8 bred cows to lightning.
He had flown prior to the storm and didn’t see anything concerning. Then around 7:30 or 8 p.m. two major bolts of lightning struck right around his place. Meyer’s son, Jeff, found the cattle.
Meyer said that in one group of 6, the cattle were “touching each other, two had their heads through the fence, and the storm had driven the others through the fence.” Another one was at a gate and another was 300 yards away from the fence.
After the experience, none of the other cattle had any signs of burns, but they were spooky and wouldn’t come near the carcasses, which had “swollen up instantly,” Meyer explained.
It took a couple days to dig a pit and bury the animals, and Meyer was surprised that nothing had touched the bodies in that time. He had seen turkey buzzards around them, but nothing had disturbed them.
Meyer said that they usually lose one every year or every other year to lightning, but he’s heard of other producers losing more over the years.
Livestock can be hit and killed directly by the lightning bolt, by the electricity traveling through the ground around the strike, by electricity jumping from a tall pole or tree to the cattle underneath/nearby, or by electricity traveling through a fence line or corral and reaching the animals. One lightning bolt can kill multiple cattle depending on their proximity.
Dr. James Myers of Belle Fourche Vet Clinic explained that he has “seen lighting strike where cows were gathered under a cottonwood tree. The bolt hit the tree, blew a big branch off, and killed the cattle under the tree.”
In another case that he had witnessed, Myers said that lightning must have hit a piece of metal continuous fence, as an animal on either side of the corral was killed.
He went on to explain that in western South Dakota, the majority of cases happen to a single animal that gets struck individually.
As the conditions are entirely random, there is little producers could do to prevent lightning strikes from claiming their livestock.
Dr. Myers explained that when an animal is struck, “the massive high voltage of electricity stops their heart and stops their neurologic function.”
“Occasionally you can see burnt feet, but more often there is no sign of lightning because they [cattle] are so well grounded…with their four feet in the ground, it just goes right through them” he stated.
Dr. Tammy Winger-Merriman of Faith Veterinary Service in Faith, South Dakota, said that she has seen cattle survive, but they were knocked senseless. “By the time we got there they were wobbly and weak–one had to be put down. They can survive, but most of the time they die.”
In the event that an animal does survive there isn’t a lot producers can do except to maybe give the animal an anti-inflammatory and to make sure that they keep eating and stay hydrated, she explained.
As a part of the USDA’s Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP), producers can be compensated for livestock losses due to “adverse weather” such as lightning.
Keith Jensen, County Executive Director for Butte, Harding, Lawrence, and Perkins counties in South Dakota, explained that adverse weather must be “a defined event in national policy.”
While it isn’t a complete list, some adverse weather events can include situations such as hail, lightning, tornado, floods, winter storms, and blizzards.
The LIP is a two-part process, Jensen explained. First producers must contact their county office to establish a “notice of loss. The second step is the application for payment.
Jensen emphasized that in order for producers to complete a notice of loss they must have a “verifiable beginning inventory” of their livestock. Verifiable in this case means more than a number written down in a book, it must be able to be proved through a bank statement, preg check receipt from a vet, or a receipt/certificate that shows that X amount of doses of vaccine were purchased and given to the producer’s herd.
After determining the verifiable beginning inventory, producers must prove the verifiable loss. Jensen explained that this can be harder to prove but can be shown through calving records, other records, or by having a third party, usually a neighbor or vet that isn’t family or an employee, fill out a form giving an account of how many animals they saw that had died.
“Normal mortality needs to be taken into consideration,” Jensen said. This is a certain percentage of loss that is considered normal for any given herd. For the LIP program, that would mean that the first 1.5% of cattle lost would be considered “normal mortality” whether they were lost in “eligible adverse weather or not.”
“Compensation is in the policy and is determined yearly in different categories,” Jensen explained. He stated that for 2019 a beef cow, regardless as to whether she was pregnant or not, would receive $916.87 in compensation. There are also categories for calves under 400 pounds, between 400-499 pounds, and yearlings.
In order to apply for the LIP program there is some eligibility criteria, but producers simply need to stop into their county FSA office. There isn’t anything that they need to be pre-registered for.
With that, Jensen stressed that to make a claim, producers need to contact the county office within “30 days from when the loss is apparent.” In other words, 30 days from when they found the loss.
In addition to the LIP through the USDA, if producers have itemized their cattle as a part of their farm and ranch insurance policy, lightning is considered a basic peril for livestock for most insurance companies. Producers would need to consult their agent to discuss compensation and proof of loss if they have included their cattle in their insurance policy.
“It is important to get a hold of your vet or insurance company early to prove loss,” Dr. Winger stated. This can help with proving loss in the LIP program as well.