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Farmer blames harsh winter for dead cattle

A Red Lake County (Minn.) farmer recently investigated for dead cattle on his property said this year's problem arose from a combination of an especially harsh winter and improper equipment to handle the problem.

County sheriffs executed a search warrant Wednesday at Don Schirrick's farmstead in Wylie Township and removed about 20 adult and calf beef cattle carcasses.

Sheriff Mitch Bernstein said Friday that the animals appeared to have died because of lack of food and poor herd management, and that there have been many complaints in recent weeks about the condition of the cattle.

Schirrick said Saturday that about 100 head of cattle remain under his care on the farm, "happily eating and running around here." He said he did realize there were some dead cattle from this winter that he needed to remove but that ground conditions didn't allow that to happen.

"My plan was to get out there and to get it done just as quickly as I felt I could handle the situation with my tractor," he said. "I didn't get around implementing my plan."

Just as conditions improved enough to get his two-wheel-drive tractor to the carcasses, he said, law enforcement agencies came to his land and removed the bodies.

But he said he has always taken care of the animals. "I felt at all times the cattle themselves were being property cared for," he said.

Shirrick said this long, cold winter was mostly to blame for the carcasses being left on his property. The 78-year-old said he's lived on this farm his whole life but never experienced as bad of a season.

"This thing gets magnified particularly in a winter that was as severe as this last one was," he said. "This was by far the worst winter I've witnessed."

A dam constructed in the early 1980s required the removal of thousands of oak trees that had acted as a shelterbelt, he said.

This opened up the northwest side of his farmstead to stronger winds and a deeper snowpack. It also made it difficult to get to the animals, he said, because the cattle yard entrance is a steep slope that his tractor can't climb when conditions are icy.

Even when the weather was acceptable this winter, Shirrick said there were several equipment problems that kept his tractor out of service for much of the season. He said he relied on some of his neighbors to help keep the cattle fed and cared for when he was unable to do it himself.

He said he also didn't know about a state law that requires dead carcasses to be removed or disposed within three days. "I'm still trying to sort out a lot of things on this," he said.

Shirrick said he didn't have an exact number of dead cattle on his land, but some of the adult animals died from bloat. He also lost some animals last fall that floated away in an alfalfa field right before snow covered the ground, he said.

In the future, he said he would immediately hire a neighbor to remove carcasses in a more prompt manner. Shirrick said he is also looking at getting a tractor that would be able to better handle the terrain.

"The outcome may have a major impact on what any and all decisions that I might make forthcoming," he said.

The sheriff's office said he may face criminal charges from the incident, and the case remains under investigation. The state animal health board cited him for a carcass disposal violation.