When the cow crosses the road

03/02/2017

Ever since a farmer confined the first livestock inside a fence, cows have found ways to get out for that one sweeter blade of grass. Cows and bulls meander into roadways so frequently in West Marin that deputies and rangers know the difference between a Holstein, Jersey and Hereford and which ranchers raise which breeds. San Rafael dispatchers maintain a rancher home phone list. 

Cows get out when fences fail. Soil erodes and trees grow roots that undermine even the sturdiest posts. While a farmer is out milking, feeding, repairing equipment, birthing calves, meeting regulations imposed by numerous government entities and even working a second job, cows are hard at work finding the best possible cud. As they lean forward to that one better blade of grass, their massive shoulders follow. Their full weight strains the limits of the fence, which finally gives, opening a passage that is just too tempting to resist. 

What should you do when you encounter a large ruminant—a “walk-away,” as Sheriff’s Lt. Doug Pittman calls them—in the road? Call 911, and be ready to tell dispatchers its color and pattern. Since cows can weigh up to a ton, a car strike can cause significant damage to the animal, the vehicle and its occupants. 

“Although it is very infrequent, there have been a handful of accidents where cars or trucks ran into cows out here in West Marin,” Lt. Pittman said. “Usually it’s at night or when heavy fog settles onto the roadways. An all-black or brown cow at night is difficult at best to see until it is too late.”

Rancher Nicola Spaletta of C Ranch knows this all too well. She was holding a huge pot of her mother’s lamb stew on her lap in her truck when her husband hit two cows one night, totaling the truck.  

Seashore ranches now use specially adapted electric fences to prevent accidents and to rotate grazing spots. The wire strands use solar boxes not prone to power outages. Often, it takes only one touch to teach a cow to stay away.

Elk, however, seem immune to electric fences. In May 2015, one elk was killed by a vehicle near Tomales Point and, recently, another was hit and killed near C Ranch. Elk have thick hides and a dense coat of hair that mutes the electric zap. They travel in herds of 60 to 80 and, when they decide to move on through, the low-voltage fence is doomed. Then, cattle can escape and wander, sometimes missing out on a milking. At times, cows too young to breed end up with the neighbor’s bull.  

Ranchers also worry that cars are driving much too fast through the park. A speeding Coast Guard employee hit and killed a steer on Coast Guard Road. “We lost an animal worth about $1,000,” the owner said. “It was fine for eating, but it was not properly marbled and therefore not ready for harvest.” 

To this day, nobody understands what made 20 cows jump off a 20-foot cliff onto Lucas Valley Road on Sept. 14, 2003. Late that morning, as West Marin drivers headed up the hill toward Big Rock, some were stunned to see one Holstein after another tumble into the road. Two cows had injuries so severe that the owner, Lorraine Silveira, asked deputies to put an end to their suffering. Officials could only speculate at possible causes: a snake, a wild animal, even mad cow disease (later ruled out). Ms. Silveira told the Marin Independent-Journal she thought thick, dense trees on top of the cliff fooled the cows into believing there was more land beyond the fence than there was. 

John and Karen Taylor, owners of Bivalve Dairy in Point Reyes Station, say their cows don’t breach fences very often because they rotate grazing fields, keeping the grass greener on the inside. “Occasionally neighbors call me saying some of our cows are out near the Straus Home Ranch and I drive up to put them away,” Mr. Taylor said. “We’ve been lucky not to have collisions, but I worry about motorcycles on our roads because they take corners too fast to take evasive action when there is something in the roadway.”

If you see a cow in the road and there are ranch workers in sight, stop and let them know—they may be “waiting ‘til the cow comes home.”

 

Peggy Day grew up surrounded by dairy cows and hopes her grandchildren will be able to enjoy our Point Reyes pastoral zone when they reach her age.