Volcano eruption preparedness for dairy cattle: Lessons learnt

In 2009, Costa Rica faced an imminent volcanic eruption, and so World Animal Protection (previously known as World Society for the Protection of Animals) organised a Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) process for dairy cattle producers and their animals living nearby the Turrialba volcano. A risk map and a DRR plan were created by the animal owners and the community, a first in the country.

Eventually, a drill was organised as one of the best learning tools for the community. The drill lasted an entire day, and the process involved the entire town, the local school, farmers and their animals, the Civil Defense [CNE], Red Cross and local authorities. Handling large numbers of animals without proper I.D.s, prior immunisation and veterinary certificates for travel, can be very dangerous for other animal populations. In light of this, the drill was very valuable to learn how to handle animals in a disaster situation and how to coordinate among agencies. During the drill, we had the advantage of recruiting a Veterinary Emergency Response team, which was developed by us at the local veterinary school/faculty, to help in the operation.

Nowadays, these teams have become a very successful tactical tool in 3 continents!

Given the difficult conditions for access and the low level of evacuation infrastructure [such as inroads, ramps, or corrals] available, we designed and built an emergency loading ramp for cattle, to be used in case of emergency.

Putting procedures into practice

Less than 6 months later, the volcano erupted with heavy ash fall, prompting the evacuation of all animals; thankfully, virtually all got evacuated and no animals were lost.

In April 2016, the Turrialba volcano erupted again, only harder, with increased ash fall in area and intensity. Recent analysis of the volcanic ash found high levels of Fluorine and Chlorine, leading to the formation of acid, and to the point of being rather toxic for the fertility of the soil, crops and the animals. Most of the recent ash cannot be easily dealt with by incorporating it mechanically into the soil, due to their levels of heavy metals, Fluor and Chorine.

As an improvement from 2009 however, Civil Defense (CNE) now has a Technical Advisory Committee for the Protection of Animals in Disasters called CAT-PAD that combines all ministries and public entities involved, and World Animal Protection acts as advisors. The volcanic ash has reached many cities in the country, disrupted flights at the international airport, and forced farmers to close their businesses or to consider doing so.

Dairy farms trying to survive under the ash need to be very careful to cover water sources, brooks and containers to prevent intoxication of ash by their animals by.  The ingestion of ash can cause fatal accumulations in the gastric system, that if not treated early have very somber prognoses.

On the other hand, evacuating dairy cattle is no easy deed; it is expensive and dairy cattle are very sensitive to stress, the ash, or the handling of them into transport trucks, leading to ill-health and sometimes painful mastitis in the udders. Then comes the issue of finding and affording similar land and pastures, similar temperatures, water, cover, installations for milking and storing, and access ways to service the cattle and sell the milk.

Farmers around the globe keep taking risks as pastures in the outskirts of volcanoes are in general -not always- the highest and more nutritive, but consideration needs to be given to how much and how often does the ash fall, its composition, if it deposits on the ground or it stays on the grass.  Then come the differences among species of farm animals that forage or cut the grass at different distances from the ground where the ash deposits, such as in the case of equines, who eat much closer to the ground than cattle do.

Our recommendations

We recommend daily examination and cleansing of the soft and most exposed skin areas of the mouth, nose and eyes; installing cover around the barn to offer extra protection at night to the young and females; plus, the prophylactic treatment of the rumen with mineral oil. Once the accumulation of ash is too advanced, the only option is surgery, although if the reticulum is affected there is virtually nothing you can do to save the animal.

Our experience consists of nearly a dozen such drills and another dozen or so volcano relief operations.

We hope these tools and lessons learnt will contribute to the general resilience sought for the owners of these animals around the world, by protecting livelihoods and the wellbeing of the animals