A single bolt of lightning killed eight of John Fortin's beef cows on Saturday. Credit: Courtesy of John Fortin

John Fortin was wrapping up a day of haying on his family beef farm on Saturday evening and happy he had beat the rainstorm.

Then he got a call from his neighbor telling him lightning had just struck a tree where eight of Fortin’s cows had taken shelter from the rain. All eight had been electrocuted and were dead.

Those eight heifers represent 10 percent of the Fortin Farm’s Angus 80-animal beef herd. The loss is a huge economic and emotional blow to the farm in Winslow that has been in the Fortin family for four generations.

“That storm rolled in around 5:30 and only lasted maybe an hour, but there was a lot of lightning close by,” Fortin said. “My neighbor calls and says, ‘Hey, lightning just hit the big pine tree on top of the hill and I have dead cows over here.’”

Fortin rents the land on which the cows were pasturing from that neighbor.

“It was definitely pretty sickening to see,” Fortin said. “I had a lump in my throat and all I could do was stare and try to take it all in and figure out what to do next because I had to get them out of there.”

Fortin said the landowner lives close to where the lightning struck and he did not want the man’s children to see the dead animals. The lightning bolt had been strong enough to throw several of the cows 10- to-20 feet into gate panels which were damaged by the impact.

“With that many animals, well you can bury one but taking care of eight is a huge undertaking,” Fortin said. “We had to borrow a trailer with sides so people would not see what was in it as we hauled them away.”

There was no salvaging of any meat as the heat of the lightning partially cooked the animals and it was starting to spoil immediately, Fortin said. The carcasses were taken to a rendering plant to be turned into compost.

Each of the cows was around 2 years old and ready to be bred, Fortin said. On the hoof each was worth around $1,500 but would have brought up to $2,500 when sold as processed beef. It’s a loss of money and about three years of careful animal husbandry.

“The way I look at it, you fed that cow’s mom while the calf grew inside her,” Fortin said. “Then you raised and grew that calf for another two years before you could breed it.”

From that point, Fortin said, the loss is exponential when you consider each cow potentially could have produced a calf a year for up to 10 years and those offspring, in turn would have produced calves which would have gone on to produce more calves.

It’s unusual, but not unheard of for lighting to kill livestock, according to Colt Knight, state livestock specialist with University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

“I wouldn’t say lightning strikes are common, but they definitely happen,” Knight said. “[Livestock] tend to bunch and line up in corners, fencelines or around trees during bad weather [and] the lightning strikes the fence, gate, cow or tree and electrocutes the animal.”

Knight said it’s more common in the western states where cattle are on open ranges with limited or no cover. But he said it can happen anywhere cattle are outside during a lightning storm.

Fortin is hoping to replace the animals. While he does have livestock insurance, it only covers liability and not death of animals.

“With some help we would like to replace them so we don’t see a huge hit,” Fortin said. “If not, we will be forced to downsize on how much [beef] we can sell next year and then keep grinding away at it.”

Fortin is not sure what, if anything, he can do to prevent something like this from happening again.

“I can cut down the tall trees,” he said. “But the lightning will just hit the next tallest ones.”

The best strategy for livestock is making sure they are not outside during lightning storms, according to Knight. Fortin did say he was thinking hard about building shelters on each of his four pastures for his herd.

“I also think it is important to make sure barns are grounded properly so lightning can’t strike a metal barn and transfer current to stock inside,” Knight said. “I have heard of dairy barns in Maine where owners walk in and find cattle dead in the stalls from electrocution.”

Building shelters is another expense on top of replacing his lost livestock, Fortin said.

Fortin is taking heart in the community’s response. An online fundraiser has raised around $5,700 and he said people are coming by the farm with offers of support.

“One young man dropped off a note for my dad saying when he had gotten into an accident in front of the farm we had taken care of him and he had always been grateful for that and now he wanted to help us,” Fortin said. “We don’t always realize how many ways we touch people.”

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.