GILFORD — The mid-August death of Dale, an 11-year-old 2,800-pound Brown Swiss ox, is an unsolved mystery to Ron and Kathy Salanitro, owners of the Ox-K Farms Discovery Center on Belknap Mountain Road.
"We had him since he was eight hours old, and he was my husband Ron's favorite," said Kathy Salanitro. "They hung out together. Dale would get into trouble then come over to my husband and give Ron three little kisses with the tip of his tongue on Ron's cheek and tilt his head and look at Ron with his big eyes. Dale knew he was instantly out of trouble when he did that."
Salanitro said Dale , one of the four giant oxen at their farm, started to show signs of a mysterious illness in June and was taken to Tufts University Veterinary Hospital for tests in July. Changes in his diet were tried when he came back o the farm but he continued to get worse, to the the point where he was barely able to stand. In August, he was taken back to Tufts, where he died around the middle of the month.
An autopsy failed to reveal a cause and tests showed that he didn't have Lyme disease, the tick-borne illness which can be fatal to livestock.
Salanitro thinks the illness was caused by some kind of noxious plant which was brought to the farm by wild turkeys.
"There were a whole lot of plants we'd never seen before which were growing in the part of a field where the wild turkeys gather. Dale was always the leader of the other oxen, the alpha male, and would have been the first to eat those plants and leave little or nothing for the rest, so it affected him the most. Two of the others did show signs of sickness but nothing like what happened to Dale," she said.
The Salanitros contacted the UNH Cooperative Extension Service, which sent Dot Perkins, a specialist in livestock nutrition, to check out the fields.
"It was absolutely devastating for Kathy and her husband to lose Dale. It was never determined by Tufts what killed the ox. The problems started weeks before I was called and when I examined what was growing in the area where the turkeys gathered I didn't find any noxious plants. But there was lobelia inflata (also known as Indian tobacco or pukeweed) in other parts of the field, and that is a plant which can cause deaths in livestock,'' said Perkins.
She says acidosis, a situation in which there is too much acid in the rumen, a key to the digestive process for ruminants, can cause livestock to weaken and die. When acid tops the 5.6 level, it kills the microbes which break down grass and grain and allow the nutrients to be absorbed. It can also be caused by a diet too heavy in grain or rich grasses.
Perkins says that it is not uncommon for livestock to be sickened by something they've eaten that they shouldn't have and that there doesn't appear to be any increase in the frequency of those kinds of events in recent years.
Salanitro says he she has discovered another problem with her livestock. One of the three remaining oxen has been diagnosed with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, another tick-borne illness. He is being treated for the illness and showing signs of recovery.
Salanitro says she Dale was never tested for Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and that she recently contacted Tufts to see if there were any of his blood samples left which could be tested. "They thought it was unlikely that he had Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever because the signs weren't there."
She still believes it is likely that is some noxious plant brought to the farm by the wild turkeys which caused the problem. She and her husband removed eight garbage bags full of the strange plants, along with their roots, from the area frequented by the wild turkeys. "The lobelia inflata doesn't have much of a root system and are easily pulled out of the ground. So an ox would pull it up roots and all and leave no sign that it had been growing there."
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