First responders trained on how to handle incidents involving livestock

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Stephen Boyles, a professor of animal sciences with Ohio State University, talks to a class of first responders in a livestock trailer, Oct. 22, at the Bloomfield Livestock Auction. (Submitted photo)

The scene was overwhelming, according to Todd Barnett. He was one of the first firefighters to respond to a livestock trailer rollover on Route 87 in Greene Township, Trumbull County, last year. 

A tractor trailer hauling cull cows from a livestock auction went off the road and tipped over on its side. The call came in around 8 p.m. on Oct. 18, 2021.

Eight cows died or were euthanized on the scene. There were 30 others that needed to be extricated from the twisted trailer and loaded safely onto another trailer to be removed from the scene.

“We’ve never dealt with a situation like that before where we had animals inside,” he said. “I knew it was going to be a very long night.”

The crash inspired a meeting and training session for first responders in Trumbull, Ashtabula and Geauga counties last month. Andrew Holden, Ohio State University Extension educator organized the Oct. 22 training after hearing about the accident from folks in his coverage area.

“It was a difficult situation,” Holden said. “The fire department and later highway patrol on the scene did a fairly good job of working with the experience and training they had. But after talking to people, there were a few things I knew probably could’ve been handled better. It just came down to lack of training, especially in a situation as complex as this.”

He hopes the training can be replicated in other parts of Ohio, and he’s willing to help make that happen.

The scene

Barnett, a member of Green Volunteer Fire and Rescue, said the incident happened about 1,000 feet from the fire station, which happened to be fully staffed because they were meeting that night.

When the firefighters got on scene, the truck driver was out of the truck. He was fine. The truck was leaking some fuel from the tank and the trailer had a load of dairy cull cows that had recently been bought from nearby Bloomfield Livestock Auction. 

Securing a scene by shutting down the road, containing the fuel leak and attending to the people were things they were familiar with. What came next was the overwhelming part. Barnett began running through all the problems they had to solve. 

How do they get the cows out? What do they do with the cattle once they get them out? Where would the cattle go for the night?

“One thing that was a little stressful early on was I knew we’d have some animals in there that had to be euthanized,” Barnett said. “There were so many in there that were piled on top of each other.”

Who has the legal authority to euthanize an animal injured in a vehicle crash? Could a law enforcement officer do it with a firearm? Would they have to wait for a veterinarian? Once they sorted that out, what would they do to remove the dead stock from the scene?

Heath Davis, owner of Bloomfield Livestock Auction, was contacted. He responded with multiple trucks and trailers, as well as rubber mats, a portable corral system and gates. 

The mats were put on the side of the trailer, which was now the floor. A chute was set up from the overturned trailer down the ditch alongside the road and up into waiting livestock trailers. From there the cattle would go back to the livestock auction for the night. 

Luckily, a large animal veterinarian from a local practice was available and got to the scene within an hour. The veterinarian euthanized some of the cows that were too badly injured. 

Barnett said Davis and his team handled the animals in the trailer. Without Davis and the guys from Bloomfield Livestock Auction, it would have been a different scene entirely. 

“You have a lot of people in the fire service who don’t have experience in dealing with livestock,” Barnett said. “They’re willing to help in any way, but they don’t have experience with livestock.”

Getting the cattle that could walk off the trailer took about an hour. Then there were about 4 animals that had to be dragged out. Once the cattle were given a chance to rest on solid ground, they were able to get their feet under them and walk the rest of the way.

Barnett said they made it back to the station by about 2 a.m. 

Training

The problem is there is a lack of training available for this type of situation. North Dakota State University Extension specialists developed the Bovine Emergency Response Plan several years ago. It’s an all-day course designed to teach first responders about euthanasia, animal handling, biosecurity and a tour of a livestock trailer.

Holden crafted a half-day training session based off the BERP course to make it more accessible to the mostly volunteer first responders in the region and give it a trial run in the region. He brought in Stephen Boyles, a professor in Ohio State University’s animal science department who specializes in beef cattle and animal welfare, to help teach the course.

At the training on Oct. 22, held at the Bloomfield Livestock Auction, Holden and Boyles broadly went over the things to think about, answering many of the questions Barnett dealt with the night of the incident. About 25 people attended the meeting. 

Holden discussed the need for each county to establish a list of contacts for livestock-related emergencies, whether that be a trailer rollover or a loose animal. Barnett said they were fortunate Davis with Bloomfield Livestock Auction was available to respond quickly. Not only did he have the equipment needed, he had contacts as well.

There is some gray area that Holden is still trying to figure out. He said it’s unclear who has the authority to euthanize an animal injured in an accident. If the owner of the animal is there to give direction, that would be the clearest scenario but that’s not always the case with large tractor-trailer loads of stock.

The night of the crash in Trumbull County, Barnett was told by the county sheriffs that they couldn’t do it. Getting a veterinarian there is probably the best option, but it’s not always the quickest and time matters when thinking about animal welfare.

Boyles ran through a tabletop exercise using toy trailers, fences and cattle to simulate responding to a scene. Live animals were also part of the training. Boyles went into an enclosed pasture to show the first responders some basics of animal handling with cattle.

“They’re not going to be expert herdsmen at the end of this, but there are little things they can avoid,” Holden said. 

The class attendees also did a tour of double-decker livestock trailer and a smaller aluminum stock trailer. Boyles talked about how they are designed, how they work and how best to cut into them.

“I knew it was very beneficial to other fire departments that didn’t have to deal with the scene like we did,” Barnett said. “And it made the realize how much the logistics was involved with dealing with that scene.”

Holden would like to put on the training in other areas of Ohio. While not common, accidents involving livestock trailers and live animals happen a few times a year throughout the state. A trailer hauling 32 cattle overturned on the ramp from I-70 to I-270 in Columbus in August.  The training can be expanded on or fine-tuned so fit the needs of different regions. 

He would also like to get together funding for a trailer that would be used to respond to such an incident. The trailer would include moveable gates and other supplies needed to respond to a scene with live animals. 

Anyone who would like to contact Holden about this training or contributing to this project can reach him at 440-576-9008 or email Holden.155@osu.edu.

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at 724-201-1544 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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