By Ian Cumming
The two ladies sitting at the back of the Cornwall courtroom on Oct. 4 snarled at the reporter who approached for a comment. Gasping, teary-eyed and utterly shocked, one hissed: “If you want a comment from OMAFRA, call them on the phone.”
One was wearing an OMAFRA Regulatory Division brown shirt. The other was geared up in an Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals (OSPCA) uniform, complete with mace and a bullet proof vest.
They were here to watch Dundas County dairy farmer and Dairy Farmers of Ontario board member Nick Thurler get sentenced like a criminal for sending a “fallen” cow to the Ottawa Livestock Sale barn at Greely, south of urban Ottawa, nearly two years ago. He was facing a fine of about $1,800.
But horrors upon horrors, after a two-day trial in April and an expected sentencing here six months later, all charges were dropped and Justice Forgues awarded Thurler his court costs. This justice understood that a cow is a cow.
The facts of Thurler’s case were straightforward. Thurler’s cow was thin but walking on all fours when it arrived at the sale barn at 7 a.m. Later in the day the cow went down and no one disputes that it couldn’t get up. By mid-afternoon the cow was checked for 20 minutes by a government-sanctioned veterinarian. He ordered that the cow be euthanized.
Thurler ordered the autopsy. It showed the cow had acute mastitis, a floating broken bone in her stifle, a foot that was blocked due to lameness, a body condition score of one, which is as low as it gets (but every herd has one, Dr. Rob Tremblay testified), broken ribs that had healed over, plus skin off her hocks.
Ontario producers have been convicted and fined for cattle having any one of these conditions, let alone this devastating combination. So, it looked like this case was a slam dunk for OMAFRA and the OSPCA. Perhaps that’s why OMAFRA refused to negotiate a settlement with Thurler. This would be the case that would cement a conviction every time a downer cow was found on a sale barn floor.
But this time, in a powerfully unprecedented ruling, having a “fallen” animal would not mean a farmer is automatically as guilty as sin.
Until this case, a farmer with 1,000 head of cattle could be charged for not noticing that a cow was sick, even though symptoms might not show up until hours after the cow was in the sale barn. But we don’t even scold parents for inadvertently sending one of their few children to school when their illness doesn’t reveal itself until after they are in the classroom.
This is why this court ruling was vital to stop this devastating nonsense.
It took one hour and 40 minutes for Justice Forgues to read her decision. She praised Thurler’s “total, truthful testimony.” The cow was 108 days in milk and had “milked off her back,” said the judge. Being found lame and treated by the hoof trimmer meant she had spent too much time lying down and not enough time eating; hence she was thin, Thurler had testified.
His accurate on-farm computer records had recorded her production, treatments and vaccinations, with no mastitis showing up until the cow was in the sale barn. The justice concurred he was correct.
The cow went down hours after it arrived. The sale barn vet didn’t see the cow until seven hours after the cow’s arrival. Justice Forgues detailed the bumbling, slothful incompetence of the sale barn vet. He had lost his notes and said another vet had looked at the cow but he didn’t produce a name. He also didn’t diagnose mastitis or floating bone. And that was key. If the vet couldn’t diagnose either, how was a layman expected to see it?
Also, seven hours allowed for plenty of time for acute mastitis to set in, or for the floating bone to cripple a cow. Yet Thurler was criminally charged for not finding eight hours before what a vet couldn’t find during an intense 20-minute, professional examination.
The lesson here is to have good on-farm records, order an autopsy, and slap them back. The future of livestock agriculture depends on it. Nick Thurler understood that and fought on your behalf.