Charges pending in dairy cattle abuse case

JEFFERSON, Ohio – A legion of residents and farmers in the Ashtabula County area sprang to the defense of a herd of dairy heifers last weekend. A gruesome incident of apparent abuse and neglect has left many angry and wondering how such a thing could possibly have happened.

On March 23, the Ashtabula County Humane Society led a contingent from the sheriff’s office, the county prosecutor’s office, and an investigator from the Ohio Department of Agriculture to execute a search and seizure order on a Sheffield Township farm where the Holstein cattle were housed.

It was a scene of such grisly conditions and death that Ashtabula County Chief Humane Officer Dorothy Bluhm still finds it difficult to talk about it.

At least 42 dead.

From photographs taken there, Bluhm said she has been able to identify the corpses of at least 42 heifers, many of them submerged in manure that was, in some places, at least 3 feet deep.

Another 40 head in the barn were found emaciated and dehydrated. Some were stuck in the manure and unable to move.

Bluhm said they witnessed one cow die while they were on the scene.

The barn on Plymouth-Gageville Road south of Ashtabula, in Ashtabula County, is located on land owned by Fred White of Canal Fulton, and was being leased by Harlan Baldwin, who lives about two miles west.

Baldwin, who is a former president of the Ashtabula County Farm Bureau, owned the dairy heifers that were being housed in the pole barn with attached feedlot pen.

Efforts to contact Baldwin for comment were not successful.

Complaint received.

According to Bluhm, a complaint about conditions at the barn was originally phoned to Humane Society President Judi Ferguson at her home.

The humane society checks on every complaint it gets, Bluhm said. She has inspected several farms in the past on the basis of complaints.

“Those farms had no problems,” she said. “We have never seen anything like this before. My grandfather was a dairy farmer, and if he had lived to see this, he would have been in tears.”

Of the 42 bodies that she has been able to identify from the photographs and videotapes taken at the barn last Friday, Bluhm said, five were outside the barn, including two calves that had been moved up a hill and laid in the grass.

Buried in manure.

The remaining corpses were lying in the manure inside of the barn, Bluhm said. There were several cases where one animal had died on top of the corpse of another, the half of the first body submerged in the muck where the second cow had fallen.

Veterinarian Cheryl Beinhardt said the cause of death could most likely be attributed to stress and weakened condition of the cows.

They appeared to have gotten stuck in the deep manure, Beinhardt said. After struggling, the dehydrated animals collapsed and died; some possibly suffocated in the manure.

Bluhm said while they were on the scene, Humane Society President Ferguson pulled one cow’s head out of the muck so the animal could breathe while they gradually forced her to back out of the manure.

The manure, Bluhm said, was fairly liquid at the feed bunk, but the cattle had to cross the manure pack to reach additional feed and to reach water that was in the feedlot at the other end of the barn.

The farm’s renter, Sherrie Taylor, told officials the cattle had been on the farm for over a year.

Clean-up ordered.

Ohio Department of Agriculture investigator Roy Hively posted a notice of violation last Friday, requiring that the operation be cleaned up by Sunday.

When the situation became known in the community, Bluhm received dozens of calls from people who volunteered their help.

Several large farms volunteered their manure removal equipment to assist in the clean-up, and a number of individuals, including several retired farmers, were ready to be there if they were needed.

Family begins job.

However, Bluhm said Baldwin and family members began the clean-up themselves on Saturday.

Bluhm said she was not able to talk with Harlan Baldwin, but that family members were cooperative, and allowed the humane society to inspect the family’s main dairy operation located on Route 7.

“We were allowed to inspect every animal, and were admitted to every building,” she said, “There were no problems at that location. In fact it was extremely clean.”

The cattle at the Plymouth-Gageville Road location were primarily heifers, although there was a bull in the herd and calves had apparently been born there.

The veterinarian said there was no evidence of any sickness and disease at the farm.

Charges pending.

According to Assistant County Prosecutor Sue Thomas, criminal charges for cruelty and neglect will be filed when she has had a chance to determine exactly how many animals were dead at the scene.

Each dead animal will be a separate count, she said. The cruelty and neglect charge is a misdemeanor, and carries a maximum fine of $750 and 90 days in jail for each charge.

“Although the humane society has the power to go back on the property and inspect at any time,” Thomas said, “what I have suggested is that since the family is cooperating, and has made a very aggressive attempt to clean it up, that we should work with them and give them a chance to correct the problem.

No further danger.

If the barn is cleaned, she said, then there isn’t any further danger to the animals.

According to R. David Glauer, head of animal industry for the Ohio Department of Agriculture, the department was notified Monday that the order to clean the facility had been met by the Baldwin family.

Hively and a state veterinarian were at the barn Tuesday, March 27, to verify that it had been cleaned, that the dead animals had been disposed of properly, and that there was no communicable disease among the cattle.

Under law, Glauer said, Baldwin had the choice of burying, burning, composting, or rendering the carcasses. “He has chosen to bury them.”

Bluhm said the humane society is waiting until it receives a plan from veterinarian Beinhardt to make recommendations to the court on how the animals remaining in the barn should be handled. It is their intention, however, to ask that Baldwin be required to provide twice-a-day feeding and watering, and regular barn cleaning, and that the society be allowed weekly inspections until the case has been resolved.

Some of the society’s cases have remained open for up to two years, she said.

(Jackie Cummins can be reached at 1-800-837-3419 or by e-mail at jcummins@farmanddairy.com)

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