Livestock deaths from lightning have shocking costs for cattle ranchers

Herd owners risks thousands of dollars in Central Florida

Close up picture of a cow taken in Lake county
Close up picture of a cow taken in Lake county (WKMG)

Florida – Each year, lightning strikes the United States, on average, over 20 million times.

Florida sees 70-100 thunderstorm days a year, resulting in the most lightning strikes per square mile in the nation.

It’s easy to say people are at risk of being struck, but animals, like cattle, are at an even greater risk since their home is in open, grassy fields, where they often huddle near trees for protection.

Pasture with storm in the distance and cattle grazing (WKMG)

There are more than 886,000 head of cattle in the Sunshine State, ranking 13th in the nation, according to the Florida Beef Council. The over $546 million industry is not immune to lightning bolts that travel 30,000 times faster than a speeding bullet.

“It’s all part of the fun owning cattle and running a cattle business,” said Dr. Jacque Minger, an Oviedo veterinarian and daughter of a cattle rancher.

Minger’s family has owned and operated RPM Livestock in Pierson, Florida, for over 45 years. They’re part of the 15,000 beef producers in the Sunshine State who watch thunderstorms closely -- and their herd even closer.

Dr. Minger.

Minger says some cattle may have obvious scorches or burns after being struck, but there are other hints, too.

“Most of the time it’s a bunch of cattle huddled under a tree and they were fine before a storm and then after the storm all dead. You might notice the tree they were under has scorched marks and the trunk’s split,” Minger said.

That was the case in Vance, Alabama, in July 1981, when 50 cattle were killed when lightning struck a tree and spread along the ground, taking down each 800-pound animal. Other signs include extreme bloating of the animal and even ocular changes.

“It can be devastating because not only do you lose the current value of the bull or cow, you also lose the value of anything they would have produced in the future,” Minger said.

She recalled a time her father saw 20 cattle owned by a friend taken out after lightning traveled down a fence line. Lightning killing cattle happens often, but the average number of animals lost per year is difficult to find due to the lack of records.

The cost adds up quickly. Steers aren’t cheap. At the Ocala Livestock Auction this past week a steer 500-600 pounds cost $786 a head. If 20 cattle are struck, that’s over $15,000 lost just in the cost of the animal, not including the cost to feed it and, like Minger mentioned earlier, the potential future revenue the steer could bring.

Market report for July 2021 Livestock Auction showing average cost of steer this month. (USDA)

So the question is: How do cattle ranchers protect their herd investment when their home is outside?

“There’s not much to do to protect them from Mother Nature but having insurance on your herd is always a good idea,” Minger said.

She went on to say, “Most of the time in the case of sudden death, if there was a storm in that area, a lightning tracker is used to confirm lightning strikes that would have occurred.”

Minger says from there, herd owners should call their veterinarian to get them to perform a necropsy to provide with an insurance claim, if in fact lightning was the culprit.

Randy Minger.

About the Author:

Emmy Award Winning Meteorologist Samara Cokinos joined the News 6 team in September 2017. In her free time, she loves running and being outside.