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Livestock electrocution can be natural or man-made

Animal Health: Make sure tools and electrical services are properly installed and maintained

A single lightening strike that travelled along the fence line is believed responsible for the death of these cattle.

We’ve all seen pictures and heard of the cattle deaths following severe lightning storms. Cattle are susceptible because they are so well-grounded. They often gather along fence lines or under tall trees, seeking shelter when lightning strikes.

There really is no prevention for this other than to make sure all fences, especially electric fences, are well-grounded. Fortunately, these are rare events but when they happen they often involve multiple animals being killed by a severe strike. If you do have a livestock loss due to a suspected lightning strike, do your best to get confirmation. Sometimes that type of loss is covered as an act of God under certain farm insurance policies.

Other electrocutions I have had witness to have involved faulty electric branding irons. With irons or any other electrical device being such as cattle clippers, and blowers used around cattle, shocks are possible. Make absolutely sure the device has grounded plugs.

It shouldn’t have to be said, but make sure the electrical outlets are also grounded. In one case I observed, it was a very old barn and not grounded. One heifer died and a second went down immediately upon branding before the owner realized the problem. Also when heating the electrical irons, be careful they don’t contact the meltable electrical cord. This goes for electrical debudders or dehorning irons as well.

With electric branding irons and other equipment, make sure they are properly maintained. For longevity, clean with a wire brush and when the iron is clean, spray the element with some type of vegetable oil. When storing a hot iron, be sure to hang it upside down by the support structures provided and not by the element itself.

Branding iron manufacturer El-Toro, based in Sherwood Park, Alta. — the only Canadian manufacturer — has an impeccable safety record. To be extra careful with any product, check the branding iron for even hairline cracks and if necessary return it to the manufacturer to be checked. Also, check the rest of the electrical supply system to make sure it is in order as well.

It is suggested to use a 2½-inch iron if branding cows and calves. Do not use a larger cow iron on a calf. Certain groups of cattle may not need to be branded.

Plan on using painkillers

If animals are to be branded, administer a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) to mitigate pain and distress. In many instances pain management is a mandatory part of cattle production. Banks, feeder associations and grazing reserves all require vaccination of cattle as well. Some animals may suffer an allergic reaction to certain vaccines, so watch for symptoms such as lung edema.

The hydraulic chutes that run on electric hydraulic pumps used for processing cattle are usually wired for 220 volts. If these are not professionally wired and grounded they can be a source of electrocution. Again, make sure safety grounding is done. Weigh scales and electric grinding discs are all possible sources of electric shock.

If an animal dies just after processing, vaccinating or branding, it is best to get an autopsy to confirm the cause of death. Electrocution may just show up as a minor hemorrhage, so it can be quite subtle. Usually electrocution signs are instant but if cattle are reacting hyper-excitably or bellering it is best to investigate to see what is causing the distress.

Watering bowls are another site where electric shock can happen so again check wiring, grounding and keep them repaired. Often in dairy barns, stray voltage can also be a problem resulting in decreased milk production as well as affecting breeding and reproduction. If production drops for some reason it may take a specialist to determine the amount and source of this stray voltage. If the source is found and corrected, it can essentially change herd production so a solution can be very rewarding from a herd health standpoint.

Sometimes it may even be how the power comes onto your property that is the source of electrocution or stray voltage. Electric fencing is a good example of how power can stray and be difficult to determine the source. Cattle are very good at sensing this which is why electric fencers are so effective.

We are constantly working with cattle when we are in the wet and with manure and urine so we must be cognizant of where electric cords are going around the chute.

As a veterinarian, I get asked many times about the electro-ejaculators and the “shock” they give the bulls during semen collection. These tools operate on milliamps which is why a very small battery can do a few hundred bulls. Bulls are extremely safe from any harm. Newer ejaculators are even smoother and less obtrusive than older models.

Voltage jolts and shocks are hopefully something that rarely happens to our cattle. Cattle are extremely sensitive to this and may cause production detriments we don’t even know about. The best is to always be aware and especially with new installations make sure they are wired properly. And if there are any unusual deaths especially after processing have them autopsied to determine a definite cause of death.

About the author


Roy Lewis is an Alberta-based veterinarian specializing in large-animal practice. He is also a part-time technical services vet for Merck Animal Health.



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