Dehydration and salt toxicity? Cows dying in Saskatchewan

Ann Hui of The Globe and Mail reports that for decades, cattle farmers have sent their livestock to graze on the sprawling Shamrock pasture, about 80 kilometres south of Chaplin in southwest Saskatchewan. Shamrock is where Russ Coward, a fourth-generation cattle farmer, has for years raised nearly a quarter of his cattle. It’s the same place Mr. Coward’s father sent his cattle.

But some time between last Monday and Friday, the cows and calves at Shamrock began to die. It’s not known whether the deaths happened all at once or slowly over the course of the four days. But by the time the manager arrived on Friday afternoon, 200 of the approximately 680 cattle in a single field were dead.

The president of Shamrock Grazing Ltd., Glenn Straub, called Mr. Coward, who raced out to the field. He was met with a gruesome scene. “We seen a tragedy,” he said. “We simply seen a terrible sight.”

Other ranchers soon joined him, about 31 in total who have cows and calves there. “We all had the same feelings – how did this happen? How did this happen?”

Since Friday, provincial authorities as well as the local RCMP have been trying to piece together the mystery. The cause is still being determined, but the prevailing theory is dehydration and salt toxicity.

The area has been subject to drought in recent weeks, said Saskatchewan’s chief veterinary officer, Betty Althouse. Officials believe this may have led to evaporation at the water source, resulting in higher concentrations of salt in the water.

“An analogy would be someone shipwrecked in the ocean,” Dr. Althouse told reporters this week. “They’re thirsty, they’re craving water, so they’re going to drink the water. But ultimately the salt water will kill them.”

Many of the dead cows and calves were found clustered around one “dugout” in particular – the pools of collected rain and runoff where they drink. Investigators at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon who were called in to assist have collected samples from the dugouts. Results are expected some time this week.