On June 16, 2014, twin tornados roared through the small Nebraska town of Pilger, leaving two people dead and much of the town destroyed. North of town, the funnels merged and the resulting tornado slammed into a 6,000-head feedyard, causing extensive damage, killing numerous cattle and injuring hundreds more.

David Gnad, DVM, serves as that feedyard’s veterinarian, and related his experience from that week to fellow veterinarians during the recent Academy of Veterinary Consultants conference in Kansas City.

While the likelihood of an individual feedyard, dairy or other concentrated livestock operation being hit by a tornado is small, many such facilities are in tornado-prone areas. Lessons from the Pilger event could  help veterinarians and managers conduct some contingency planning , just in case.

The tornado struck at about 5 pm that Monday, and Gnad arrived at the feedyard at 6. What he found was worse than expected, with numerous dead cattle, many severely injured cattle and many more cattle wandering freely with most of the facility’s fencing destroyed. The first priorities, Gnad says, were to contain cattle, remove cattle to secure sites, euthanize severely injured cattle and provide feed and water for surviving animals.

Community support, Gnad says, was critical. The area around Pilger, in northeastern Nebraska, is well populated with farms, ranches and feedyards, meaning a ready supply of people who know how to handle cattle and work in livestock facilities. Within hours, members of the local community were constructing temporary fencing and rounding up cattle.

Gnad says that initially, surviving cattle seemed “shell-shocked.” The scene was eerily silent, with cattle mostly just standing around. Fences built with a single strand of barbed wire sufficed for containing cattle as they made no attempt to flee. Crews also worked to clear debris from the yard’s loadout facility while the feedyard’s manager and staff began making arrangements to ship cattle to other feedyards, grow yards and packing plants. Crews also began working with damaged office computers, needing to access accounting and animal health records as they prepared to ship cattle.

As volunteers helped contain surviving cattle, Gnad went about the unpleasant task of euthanizing those with severe injuries. That task was entailed on-the-spot decisions on which cattle to euthanize, and was complicated by safety concerns as more people arrived on the scene. He also notes that surface conditions were extremely slippery – more so than following a typical rainfall, which made walking difficult.

Over the next few days, Gnad used several firearms to euthanize cattle. He says the 7.62x39mm (AK-type) rifle was more powerful than necessary, creating safety concerns if bullets were to pass through the target. A .22 rimfire rifle worked well at very close range, but he says the most effective firearm for the purpose was a .223 caliber AR-15 rifle, with adequate, but not excessive power for a humane kill.

The psychological toll such an event has on the people involved can be more severe than expected, Gnad says, as people who spend their lives caring for animals deal with the tragic scene. That first night, the feedyard owner eventually asked him to temporarily stop using a firearm to euthanize cattle, as the sound of each shot caused psychological pain.

Although the area is rural and lightly populated, highway traffic from curious onlookers created difficulty in transporting equipment, water tanks and other supplies to the site during the first couple days.

By the next day, the temperament of the surviving cattle had turned from shell-shocked to agitated and aggressive, which complicated efforts to contain or euthanize them.

Facing inquiries from media, Gnad and the team developed a media message and identified a spokesperson to assure the media and public that every effort was being taken to assure the safety of people and the welfare of animals on the site. They created a checkpoint on the private road into the feedyard to limit access to those who needed to be there.

Over the next few days, the team worked to sort and ship cattle out as quickly as possible. Those tasks were complicated by severe heat and humidity, with heat-index readings over 120. Hauling water to cattle became a high priority, as the feedyard’s pump was damaged and power remained out. Record-keeping also was a challenge due to damaged computers and lack of lot tags. Gnad and the team worked with what they had to collect identification information on dead cattle for insurance purposes and to ensure that any treated cattle shipped to slaughter had met withdrawal times. They continued shipping heavy cattle to packing plants and some lighter “railer” cattle to local processors.

Within two days following the tornado, Gnad began visiting the local grow yards that were housing affected cattle. Many that had appeared healthy when shipped now showed signs of injuries and stress-related disease that needed treatment, and flies were becoming a problem as many cattle had open wounds. Zoetis, he says, provided significant contributions of medications though a company emergency-response program.

In the end, of 5,334 cattle affected, 595 died, with 60 percent of those euthanized. Nineteen cattle were missing, 341 railed and 1,155 shipped to packing plants. Most of the remaining cattle were housed in six area yards while repairs got underway at the damaged yard.

In retrospect, Gnad says it would have been helpful to hold meetings daily, ideally every morning and evening, involving the owner, managers, veterinarian, nutritionist, environmental consultants, insurance agent and attorney to review progress, set short-term priorities and assign responsibilities. He also says it would have helped to have a media strategy and message prepared earlier, better cattle identification and more delegation of tasks.