Veterinarian: No definitive cause for calf's death on Loudon farm near landfill

Cow one of 26 that died on Loudon farm

Hugh G. Willett

LOUDON — The veterinarian who performed a necropsy on a calf that was among 26 cattle that died mysteriously in 2010 on a Loudon County farm near the Matlock Bend landfill said she was unable to determine the animal’s cause of death.

Representatives of the county and the Solid Waste Disposal Commission, which manages the landfill, have presented the report as evidence that the cattle died from neglect.

“There is no definitive cause,” said Dr. Kim Newkirk, an assistant professor in the University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

The results of the necropsy of the single calf cannot be extrapolated to determine the cause of death of any other animal that died on the farm, Newkirk said.

“I would have to look at a representative number of all the animals that died,” she said.

Farmer Jerry Hughes has alleged that his cattle were poisoned by drinking water from a pond fed by runoff from the landfill. He said he has been trying to determine for more than three years exactly how the cattle died.

“I tried to find out, but nobody would tell me anything, except that it was parasites,” he said.

The necropsy said that in addition to several ailments, the calf suffered from parasites, emaciation and dehydration.

“It was really skinny and had a lot of parasites,” Newkirk said.

Under clinical history, the necropsy reports that the calf drank about 12 gallons of water per day but refused food and nibbled on hay. The history said the hay quality was poor. Hughes said he knows the calf was sick but is certain it was not starving to death.

Newkirk also said there is no way to tell if the animal was poisoned because no toxicology tests were performed. Toxicology tests would have had to be ordered by the owner of the animal or the authorities who sent the calf for the necropsy, she said.

Hughes said he doesn’t know why the toxicology tests were not performed when he specifically told investigators from the Loudon County Sheriff’s Office and the state Department of Agriculture that he thought the cattle were poisoned. A sheriff’s deputy also took a sample of the water from the pond but they never tested it, he said.

Gordon Harless, who was in charge of the county animal shelter and emergency management in 2010, presented the report to County Commission in July as evidence that the animals died from neglect.

Harless said he was on site the day after the cattle were reported dead. He said the cows were being fed low nutritional value sage grass. He showed the commission a photo of a bale of what he identified as sage grass taken on Hughes’ farm.

Hughes, who said he has been raising cattle for 40 years, said he doesn’t know where Harless got his information about sage grass. He said he fed the cattle hay that he grew and baled himself.

Harless could not be reached for comment.

Hughes said the calf that was autopsied had been sick for several days and that he was administering antibiotics and providing food, but the calf would not eat. He said he knew that the 6-month-old calf had not been drinking from a pond on the property that he suspects was contaminated.

“I asked them to take one of the cows that were in the field, but they wanted to take the calf that was in the barn,” he said.

Hughes also said that in the days before the cattle started dying, he saw water heavy with foam flowing onto his leased property from the direction of the landfill. He said he noted the runoff as unusual because it was not raining that day nor had it rained the day before.