MOUNTAIN — Twenty-nine beef cattle died instantly as they clustered beneath a large oak tree that got struck by lightning, south of Ottawa.
The harrowing incident happened at Bob and Nancy Zwarts’ farm outside the hamlet of Mountain during a powerful thunderstorm that rolled through North Dundas Township on the evening of July 13th.
Bob Zwarts said the lightning bolt hit the tree some time between 10:30 and 11:30 p.m., wiping out half of his herd of mostly Charolais cattle. Twenty-four adult cows and five calves were lost.
“It’s unbelievable, really,” said Zwarts. “It was catastrophic.”
“A lot of my prime cattle were killed that night.”
When the animals didn’t show up for their regular hay feeding close to the house and barn on the morning after the storm, Zwarts headed out on his ATV and discovered the carcasses where they had dropped dead. “To see that was a complete shock,” he said.
“I had kind of assumed that with the thunder and lightning, maybe they broke through the fence and ended up in the bush someplace,” he recalled. But as Zwarts headed into the field, he spied one bloated carcass from a distance. Then, as he got closer, “I saw the bodies all piled up and mangled together.
“It was really an unbelievable sight. I was overwhelmed, really.”
A free-range cow-calf operation where the livestock move between the open barn and pasture at will, almost all of the casualties had been sheltering beneath the oak during the storm. But a group of four adult cows standing about 200 feet away from the tree also died of electrocution, he said.
“It just seemed like the voltage went down into that tree and into the root system … and that power went through the ground and killed those cattle, too.”
The surge of electricity split the oak’s trunk near its base but didn’t destroy the tree.
He said his neighbour across the road believes he witnessed what might have been the deadly lightning bolt during the intense storm event. Emitting multiple ‘voltage spiders,’ the massive flash “hit just north of my barn,” Zwarts said. “It stunned him … took his breath away when he saw it.”
“We had a crack of lightning not too far from the house, and our house kind of vibrated,” he added. “It seemed to be right over top of us.”
The loss is insured, though at age 69, Zwarts said he isn’t sure about trying to rebuild the herd. He went into beef full time in 2008, after decades as a dairy farmer with 200 Jerseys. The Zwartses had 700 acres at one time but today operate on 125.
The aftermath of the lightning strike included having to hurriedly hire an excavator. On-farm pit burial was the only way to deal with the rapidly decomposing bodies in the heat of summer, he explained.
His cattle “were doing so well this year,” Zwarts reflectively pointed out. “I had very little sickness problems, and everything was so positive for a while, and I thought, gee, it’s a good year to be a farmer, you know?”
Bovines are occasionally killed by lightning and sometimes in substantial numbers. Matt Elson of B&D Deadstock in Tweed recalled the aftermath of a single storm several years ago that left 125 cattle dead between different farms where he collected the carcasses. “We went to one place and picked up 24,” said Elson.
In the same industry, Tom Atwood of Atwood Resources also reported picking up his share of dead cattle killed by lightning over the years.