The lightning storm that settled over Mountain on Tues., July 13 electrocuted 29 of Bob Zwarts’ cows that were huddled under this oak tree. The lightning split the tree from top to bottom but did not knock it over. Courtesy Photo

MOUNTAIN – Twenty-nine cows were struck by lightning and killed during a fierce thunder and lightning storm that swept through Eastern Ontario on Tues., July 13.

The cows were sheltering under a tree close to their barn during the storm at the farm of Bob and Nancy Zwarts.

The lightning struck one of many trees in the area, but did not damage their farmhouse or barn but split the trunk of the oak tree the cows were huddling under.

Normally in similar weather, the same cows would wander back to their barn but this time they decided they wanted to stay put.

Bob Zwarts was shocked to find his herd had been decimated by the storm.

“It’s pretty devastating. It has pretty well wiped out half my herd. I had 52 head of cow/calf, it took out 24 of my better cows and five calves.”

Zwarts raises beef cattle as well as doing some cash crops on his 125-acre farm in Mountain.

“The good news is that I have insurance but there are a lot of calves out there who are orphaned,” he said. “That will be an issue down the road.”

He said, “I have been farming all of my life and I am close to 70 years old and I have never seen anything like that in all my life.”

The storm that made its way over Eastern Ontario consisted of heavy rain thunder and lightning. The entire area was covered by storm clouds.

“Some of the lightning bolts even shook the house. It was pretty scary.”

Swarts said he left the barn open and they could have chosen to go into it.

The oak tree the cows chose to shelter under is very tall.

“You can see it blew the bark right off of it and then streaked from the top of the tree down; near the base of the tree it split; it didn’t knock the tree down.”

He figures that the lightning went from the top of the tree, travelled down the trunk and then into the trees roots and any cattle that were standing or laying on the ground were electrocuted.

He said, “There was four cows about 100 feet away from the tree and then there were some other ones a little closer probably 50 to 75 feet away and they just dropped. It was incredible. There was a cluster of cows all around the base of the tree and they dropped dead on the spot.”

He said as a farmer he had heard of lightning strikes here and there that have killed the odd farm animal but never a group of this size.

Throughout Canada and in every province, there have been reports over the years of lightning strikes that have killed livestock in much the same way as the cows in Mountain perished. The animals group themselves under a tree to get out of the rain and sometimes that is exactly where the lightning will strike. There have been reports of groups of cows being electrocuted even in their stalls in a barn when lighting hits the roof of a barn and travels down to where the cows are eating or sleeping.

The Zwarts have worked their family farm since 1962.

“My brother and I used to milk 200 head of Jerseys. We got out of that in 2008. We cashed cropped for many years, but I always had a beef herd up here. Everything I raise, I raised right here on the farm,” he said. “I never bring cattle in.”

He explained, “I have raised all of the cattle on the farm from when they were calves. So, it was so devastating to see so many cattle that I raised from a calf like that.”

He pointed out that his herd was having a great year. They were healthy and maturing well.

“There was no sickness problems and they were doing so well. I thought this was going to be a very good year. The crops were good, the hay was good, everything was positive. And in one night everything was put on its head,” he said.

“I was so proud of the cattle and the calves. The pasture is holding up well.”

He said they have had lightning storms in the past and they are not unusual.

“I have had beef cattle here since 1991 and we have had lightning and different storms but never ever have I had any animal that was hit by lightning.”

He said that when the storm began, all of the cattle headed to the back pasture.

“That’s where they spent the night.”

As the storm intensified, he considered if it would be safe to go out on his four wheeler and check up on them but the storm was so savage and the lightning so frequent that he wisely decided to ride the storm out.

The morning after the storm he expected the cows to come wandering back to the barn for the round bales he fed them every morning but there were no cows waiting for him.

He thought it was really strange. He went out and looked for the cows and as he got closer, he could not believe his eyes.

He had to have a veterinarian come over and have a look at the cows to verify what had happened to them.