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A Single Lightning Bolt Killed 21 Cows in South Dakota

Here’s a “very strong reminder of what lightning can do,” authorities say.

Moody County Sheriff's Office

So far this year, five people in the U.S. have died from lightning—some after working outside, others while riding a horse or picnicking with family.

Cattle have fared worse. Last week alone, 21 cows in South Dakota made the grave error of gathering around a metal feeder while storms loomed. A single bolt hit the feeder, electrifying the animals and killing them all on the spot.

The grim aftermath—a circle of bovine carcasses reminiscent of some dark ritual—is pictured in the above photo from the Moody County Sheriff's Office. The department’s representative on Facebook writes:

This is a very strong reminder of what Lightning can do. This was somewhere in McCook County last night. There is 21 head of cattle that were around this metal bale feeder when it was hit with one bolt of [lightning] and it killed them all. That is about $45,000 worth of loss. As the severe weather starts to roll in this summer please keep this in mind. If you start to see lightning and hear thunder you need to get out of the open. Off of the Lakes, off of the Golf Course etc so that you are safe. And standing under a tree is not a safe place either.

Cattle and other farm animals are often the unheralded casualties of severe weather. A dozen more cows were killed by lightning last week while they huddled under a tree in Missouri, and last summer a thunderstorm laid waste to 33 others at a farm in Mississippi. Sometimes the animals get lucky, though—and none more so than “Sparky the Bison,” who absorbed a 2013 lightning strike to his hump (likely in Iowa) and came out standing, albeit with a nasty scar.

Karen Viste-Sparkman/USFWS

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.