THE DAY THAT WENT AWRY

Disappearing cattle

Johnson’s heifers head to the lake

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PELICAN RAPIDS, Minn. — A frozen lake, a foot of snow and 18 missing heifers perplexed Dana Johnson in January 2023.

“The first time the heifers got out, it was either late at night or early in the morning,” Johnson said. “I went out in the morning to feed them, and they were nowhere in sight.”

 In one week, the heifers got out three times, once overnight and the others early afternoon. Unlike other times when the heifers escaped here or there, they traveled as a full herd of 18 on these three journeys.

 “When they first got out, they ran everywhere, so I didn’t know where they went right away or how far,” Johnson said.

Johnson works on the farm owned by his mom, Dawn, with his older brother, Adam. They milk 50 cows at Lida-Acres Holsteins near Pelican Rapids.

Eventually, Johnson spotted a group of tracks and followed them straight to Lake Lida, which spans 3 miles in diameter.

“I walked out there and eventually found them in someone’s yard,” Johnson said. “I was frustrated with the cattle but glad no one got upset about them being by their lake house.”

Johnson promptly led the heifers home.

“I chased them back across the lake, and they were pretty good,” he said. “I thought they would be fired up, but they walked back to the farm nice.”

Johnson did not know how or why the heifers escaped.

“They had hay, water and the fence was working,” Johnson said. 

 If a few heifers got out in years past, they usually headed west. Typically, someone in the family would get a phone call about the loose heifers, Johnson said. But this time, nobody did.

 During the week of escaping heifers, the brothers discovered them gone when they went out to feed or check on them.

“The one day, my brother had to help me because I couldn’t get them on shore,” Johnson said. “Each time, it took about an hour to get them back in, even the time I caught them before they got far.”

One thing that worked in Johnson’s favor was the amount of snow on the lake, which allowed him to follow all 72 of their hoof prints as they walked away from the farm.

“It wasn’t fun chasing them through the snow, but I didn’t have to worry about them falling,” Johnson said.

 There was one spot on the lake that was plowed clear so the anglers could get to their fish houses. Johnson said he was concerned about the animals slipping as they approached, but all of them made it across safely.

 That is, until they got closer to land.

 “We were lucky that only a couple of them broke through the ice, and it was along the shore,” Johnson said.

When the heifers fell through, Johnson said he did not worry. The water was only about 2 feet deep, and by the time they were safely back in their pen, they had dried.

However, the nice day on the lake meant Johnson was not alone. He had a crowd of anglers watching as he moved the heifers toward home. 

“One lady asked if I was taking the cows for a walk,” Johnson said. “I was worried about the cows getting spooked, but they didn’t seem to mind the people.”

After the third getaway and subsequent chase on the lake that week, the family moved the herd to a different pen. To this day, Johnson said he has not been able to figure out how the 18 head of cattle broke out or why they were drawn to the lake.

“Usually, when we have cows out, it will just be one or two that get out and it’s not a big problem, but when every one of the heifers got out those three days, it was,” Johnson said.

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