By Stephanie R. Ostrowski, DVM, MPVM, DACVPM

In the middle of the night on Nov. 29, hundreds of cows were turned loose from their pens at a dairy farm—Misty Meadows Farm—in rural Maine, and refrigeration units to the main milk bulk tank storage units were turned off. Nearby Wright Place Farm was vandalized that same evening, according to an article on CentralMaine.com.

Misty Meadows Farm near the town of Clinton has approximately 1,500 lactating dairy cows, 650 of which were turned out of their pens during the middle of the night by persons unknown. The milkers finishing the evening shift found 150 cows out, but were able to round them all up and return them to their pens. The early morning milking shift found another 500 milk cows out between 2 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. One of those cows fell into a drainage hole and broke her neck.

Had workers not thought to check the milk bulk tanks—and found that refrigeration units had been turned off—thousands of gallons of milk might have been declared a loss and had to be dumped when the creamery truck came to pick it up the next day and discovered a problem.

Down the road at Wright Place Farm, no cows were found turned out of their pens or injured. The bulk tank refrigeration had not been tampered with, but several acts of vandalism were determined to have occurred (shooting out streetlights with a stolen pellet rifle, driving one of the tractors, etc.).

Clinton police Senior Patrol Officer Karl Roy estimated the value of the dead milk cow at $2000 – $2,500 and the value of the at-risk bulk tank milk at $10,000. Officer Roy said that local juveniles or young adults, with specific inside knowledge of these farms, were the most likely suspects and therefore classified these incidents at this time as criminal mischief and vandalism, rather than agro-terrorism.

This report highlights some of farm operations’ potential vulnerabilities to criminal mischief and thus to agro-terrorism. Most commercial dairies milk three shifts each day, with significant numbers of people, cows, tractors, and private vehicles moving around in the dark as well as in the daylight. Luckily, most of the people at a farm are well-known to each other, and tend to be alert to anyone or anything that seems out of place, which helps mitigate the risks of malicious intrusion.

Most people outside the dairy industry are not aware of the scale and sophistication of modern U.S. dairy production operations. The average value of a lactating dairy cow is $2,000-$2,500, so the total value of cows on this farm alone was between $3 million and $3.75 million. The value of on-farm bulk-tank milk awaiting pick-up was $10,000. Also, there is a significant risk to public safety if cows enter the roadway.

Potential on-farm impacts to milk production and continuity of milking operations occur when cows have their eating, resting, and social structures significantly disrupted. Even without injuries to other animals or loss of bulk tank milk, the uncontrolled re-mixing of groups of cows in different stages of lactation may result in cows being fed the wrong ration in the short-term and loss of their normal social groupings and favorite free-stall resting spots, as well as the hours of extra work for farm management required to physically sort cows back to their proper pens.