Lightning strikes tree,kills cows

Published 5:00 am Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The dark gray thunderstorms that sprang up in the afternoonsacross Lincoln County last week provided welcome relief in the formof rain showers for some area farmers.

But for Larry Sasser, a beef cattle farmer who owns 180 headwest of Bogue Chitto, the thunder brought instant, superchargeddeath.

“I was coming back out of the field the next morning and Ilooked across and there were the cows laying there,” he said. “Itdidn’t take but about three seconds for me to figure out what hadhappened.”

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Last Wednesday’s hour-long, thunder-bearer blew across Sasser’sfarm and deposited only a light sprinkling of rain – and onelightning bolt to a lone tree in the pasture that struck down sevenof his cows huddled beneath.

Sasser said the departed group of seven mixed bovine – includingBlack Angus and Simmental breeds – contained two of his finestcows, and the other five he described as “above average.” AlthoughSasser still has plenty of cows remaining on his farm, the loss ofjust these seven, combined with the absence of seven new calves formarket next year, amount to a sizeable monetary loss.

“There was a good $7,000 laying on the ground,” he said. “Someof them looked like they were just laying down, chewing their cud -some were turned over on their side with their legs stickingout.”

Sasser said there was no way to recoup the money. His $7,000simply disappeared in a split-second flash of light and heat.Technically, he said, the money will not be missed until next yearwhen it comes time to wean what would have been seven newcalves.

“It shorts me on my cash crop,” he said. “I could have went tothe boat and had a lot more fun, but I don’t go to the boat.”

The irony of Sasser’s case of cow death is the tree thatassisted the lightning bolt on its path to Earth existed at hispleasure. When he bought the land and was preparing it for cattleseven years ago, Sasser chose to leave a single Sweetgum tree alongthe fence line to provide shade.

“I thought, ‘I ought to get rid of these ugly things,’ but Ididn’t,” he said. “It was the only shade around that part of thepasture, so I decided to leave it there for the cows to lay under.It’s not a good tree, but it’s all I had.”

Sasser said he first noticed the danger earlier that Wednesday -around 1 p.m. – but thought nothing of it. While he and his wife,Kathy, were returning from treating a wounded calf at the barn,they noticed the Sweetgum tree had been recently blackened bylightning.

The next morning, Sasser – believing that rain had fallen duringthe night – rode out on his tractor, aiming to disc up a field.Finding the ground dry, he turned to drive back and noticed thedead cattle beneath the Sweetgum.

“Lightning will strike the same place,” Sasser said. “When I sawthat tree had been hit by lightning the day before, I thought, ‘Ishould move them cows to another pasture.’ But they could have beenhit under any tree.”

Later that day, Sasser began removing the carcasses with histractor, placing them in a gravel pit on his property to decomposeaway from the pasture so coyotes and buzzards would not strew thebones.

“Luckily, within the last few years I’ve got real close to theLord and I’ve learned how to deal with things, so I didn’t gocrazy,” he said. “I just kept my cool. There’s nothing you can doabout – if you don’t wanna lose cows, you just don’t need to haveany. I figure I’ve still got some cows left, and that’s more thansomebody who doesn’t have any at all.”

Sasser said he has heard stories of cows gathering up andsuccumbing to lightning in large groups before, but this is thefirst time in a lifetime of cattle farming that he has been on thereceiving end of the sky’s electricity.

And, as far he is concerned, it’s the last time the Sweetgumwill serve as a means of cow death.

“My power saw is in the shop, but when it gets back to the houseit’s going up the hill,” Sasser promised. “I’m gonna cut that treedown and dig up the stump. Then I’m gonna evaluate and look for anymore oddball trees standing out in the pasture.”

Lincoln County Extension Service Director Rebecca Bates saidlone trees in an open pasture are always likely paths forlightning, but Sweetgum trees are especially susceptible.

“Sweetgum trees are known targets,” she said. “Both Sweetgum andpine trees have a high resin content, and when lightning goesthrough the vascular system of a tree, there’s no way to tell whereit will end up.”

Bates said lightning traveling through a tree’s vascular systemcan blow out a branch, explode the tree or pass through into theroot system and disperse across the ground – the most likely causeof death for Sasser’s seven cows.

“The lightning can go out of the ground and hit an animal, andwhen they’re huddled together, usually touching on another, thelightning goes from one animal to the next,” she said.

Sasser said he would not attempt to replace his fallen stock.Although seven dead out of a heard of 180 is a very small loss, thecondition of the cattle market has increased the financialimpact.

“It’s a hit,” Bates said. “The problem with the cattle market isjust like it is with dairy or anything agricultural – fuel.”

Increased fuel prices have resulted in increased prices onalmost all other goods and supplies that have to be shipped, andmade the cost of transporting cattle to market much more expensive.By the time a cattle farmer pays all the fuel costs over ananimal’s lifespan, Bates said, those costs bite into the returns atmarket.

“Fuel, feed and fertilizer are higher – it’s not balancing out,”she said. “Cattle farmers are having to put more and more in.They’re still getting a decent price, but the cost of everythingelse has exploded.”

Bates said the flooding of the Mississippi River in the Midwestis worsening feed costs, which are already high due to increasedtransportation costs.

“They’re not getting their corn planted, and that’s where thebulk of the corn comes from in the U.S.,” she said. “We’re notlooking for the price of corn to level out until 2009.”

Bates said further corn shortages are being caused by thedevotion of one-third of all corn currently planted to thedevelopment of ethanol. She said the missing third is causing lesscorn to make it to market and driving prices up, and could evenlead to a corn shortage.