How to find an A dead cow mystery is going to take some detective work.
June can be grim in the wild west. Endless grey days of a coastal winter, when early cloud clears to persistent rain, when underfoot is greasy and the clay coats your boots in a weight like a death sentence.
It’s not the grey skies that get the people down, but the mud. The Far North’s good orange clay is said to have stuck on the bare feet of Kupe and so the legend was born, that those who get the clay of the Hokianga on their feet will return someday, as Kupe did.
Legendary or not, clay in winter is like glue. If livestock have to walk in it, they can get stuck up to their bellies. It is smelly and slippery. It is cold. The grass that might thrive on it in spring just will not grow until the temperature warms, but the clay – with its super fine particles – is always the last soil type to respond to any sun.
Peggy was a widow in her late 60s and making a good go of keeping her family farm operating until one of her offspring was old enough or inclined to take it over. She was a big, no-nonsense woman with the work ethics of someone who started with nothing and built up a business the hard way. After her husband died, she just kept going, picking up his workload along with her own.
When she retired from milking her own herd she took in grazing animals. The money was good and the work was easier. She was still in charge of daily shifting of the mob, but free from the dramas of calving and milking.
Peggy liked to give her cows a break from the mud, standing them off the paddocks for some of the day, making the most of a concrete yard area and the metalled tracks, before letting them loose on the pasture for a few hours.
One morning she called the Vet in a right old flap. A cow had died. Remember, these were no longer her own animals but Peggy was responsible for them. Worse, two more animals were looking sick.
This wasn’t just about the economics of losing a cow. Peggy loved farming, she liked working with dogs and cattle, and even though these weren’t her own cows, to lose one was a serious blow. The possibility of losing two more had her really panicking.
The Vet headed straight out. The dead animal was really quite dead and already bloated. The two crook ones were nearby, one stretched out on its side, groaning and salivating, the second sitting up, but staring at nothing.
“Well, we can’t do anything for that one,” the Vet said, pointing to the dead
one. “But this one… it’s not long for this world. It’s in a huge amount of pain and it’s best to euthanase it on welfare grounds. I can do a post mortem straight away.”
Reluctantly, Peggy agreed. A rifle put the cow out of her misery, then the Vet went to work with a sharp knife. It was immediately obvious the gut was raw and inflamed and there was blood throughout the intestinal tract. The lungs and heart were fine.
“If I didn’t know how clean your paddocks are, I would swear it was a case of plant poisoning,” he said. “But there aren’t any weeds left on your place, are there?” Peggy shook her head. “No, we’re on top of the gorse, the blackberry has gone, a bit of sedge, but not where these girls are grazing.”
“Can I go and have a look around?” asked the Vet. “Sometimes they get into stuff they aren’t meant to. I know of some calves that drank a heap of old engine oil, no telling for taste!”
The Vet walked up and down the paddocks, then around the shed, the raceways, even the drains down either side of the tracks. Nothing.
He dosed the crook cow with an antiinflammatory and pain relief, but he came away unhappy and very puzzled. Something serious was going on and more animals could be affected.
In the middle of the night the phone went, a shrill warble that never means good news. It was 3am. It was Peggy. “Sorry, but I had to ring you.” “Is the cow worse?” “No. I mean, I don’t know. But it suddenly occurred to me… these cows… they did get into something. I had them on the tanker loop, the road up to the shed. I had prettied the place up a bit and planted the island in the centre of the loop with all sorts of stuff from cuttings. It had been looking good.” “I never noticed…” “No, you wouldn’t, it’s not there anymore. These girls are a pushy lot and they got into the shrubbery and annihilated it, everything chewed down to the ground.”
The Vet went back out first thing, this time armed with a book of poisonous plants.
The hebes and manuka Peggy had planted weren’t a problem, but there was a long skinny trunk that had been blown over in a recent storm. It looked a bit like a cabbage tree, but different, and all that was left of the ones Peggy had planted were a few stringy, tassled, flax–like leaves at one end and signs of chewed shoots along its length. “What was this?” “It’s a bit of a dragon tree. I was given a cutting.” “Dracaena draco?” he asked. “No idea, just know it as dragon tree. It had been doing quite well but it copped it in the last blow and fell over… but it came away with heaps of new shoots.”
“Well, it’s a dragon all right, full of saponin toxin, especially in the fresh new growth – right there is your problem. Usually it’s only an issue with cats and dogs… not many cows get a chance to graze on it.”
“Oh damn,” said Peggy. “And I was just trying to make the place look nice. But at least it looks like it’s all gone now.” ■