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Eleven-year-old bucking bull breeder Jake Wilfong looks back as a news helicopter from Abilene lands to cover the story of 15 cattle found dead on a ranch west of Palo Pinto, while the inset photo shows one of the deceased cows. Veterinarian Craig Sweatt said he suspects accidental poisoning of the herd's drinking water. One of cows was taken for autopsy to Texas A&M University.

PALO PINTO COUNTY – At least 15 cattle were killed by an unknown source in the past few days on a ranch west of Palo Pinto.

On Tuesday morning a family friend of the owner’s found 14 dead cows spread throughout one pasture and one dying cow.

One cow died about 15 minutes before veterinarian Craig Sweatt arrived on the scene after the owner and family found her seizing. She was taken immediately to Texas A&M University for an autopsy by the owner’s father, Mike Wilfong, of Huckabay, Texas.

Officials also took water samples from a stock pond – one of the herd’s main water sources – and said it would take several days for the results to return.

Cattle owner Jake Wilfong, 11, had started developing his bucking bull herd about five years ago when he and his father bought three cows at a sale. Before last weekend, he had 20 cows, 13 calves and a bull on the 320 acre ranch, off State Highway 919, south of U.S. Highway 180.

Clay Allen, of Stephenville, a close friend of the Wilfongs, has a hunting lease on the ranch and found the dead cattle Tuesday when he came to check on things. The dead cattle were in a pasture, not far from a stock pond. Allen encountered a bull, three cows and seven calves, still alive, in a different pasture. However, when he tried to take Sweatt and the young owner to examine the herd, they were nowhere in sight.

“I’ll have to start making my herd again,” said Jake Wilfong.

“He’d been working on the bloodlines,” said his father, citing lines that traced to famous bucking bulls  Copenhagen, Drifter, Houdini and Gunslinger.

He said Jake had learned about bloodlines and building his herd from the boy’s grandfather, Bob Wilfong, of Aquilla, Texas, who is well-known as a bucking bull breeder. He was also one of the original founders of American Bucking Bulls Inc. and the National Bucking Bull Association.

One of the boy’s bucking bulls was out of a cow that he found dead on Tuesday. He said the bull had made it to competitions, including the junior futurity, Professional Bull Rider’s Spring Spectacular in Stephenville, and other events.

“He put in a lot of years,” said the boy’s grandfather. “His bull is set for another rodeo.”

“That bull’s never been rode so far. He’s been out three times and he’s thrown three times,” he said, adding that the rides have lasted from two to four minutes.

The Palo Pinto County Sheriff’s Office responded to the scene and asked media sources to get the word out in case other livestock owners experienced a similar large-scale death. An Abilene news helicopter circled overhead several times and landed for an interview.

Sweatt said he is leaning toward the water sources as the potential cause of death, saying “The grass is too good to be an issue.”

He estimated from the bloating of the dead cattle that they died an “acute death” – within minutes to hours, with no advance symptoms – during the past two-to-three days. He said sending the entire body of the cow that died Tuesday afternoon to A&M, in College Station, was the best way to submit a specimen for autopsy purposes.

He said the water sample will also tell whether, or what, toxins affected the cattle. He said this could be caused by blue-green algae, but told the Wilfongs he wouldn’t rule out run-off, perhaps containing  herbicides or insecticides, since they had up to 8 inches inches of rain in a matter of hours two weeks ago.

“Unless you know, we pretty much assume everything’s toxic,” he added. “Anytime you see this, our recommendation is to get [the remaining livestock] on a known water source – hauled in or well water.”

“Every year’s going to be a little different, especially with changing weather patterns,” Sweatt said, citing that the family said they had a huge rain just over two weeks ago. “Having 8-to-10 inches of rain in and hour and a half creates a hugh wash. It’s going to create contaminants in a water source that haven’t happened in a long time.”

He indicated that intentional poisoning is rare, based on his experience.

“There are few times I have covered cases when it’s truly malicious poisoning,” he said. “The majority of time, there’s no maliciousness.”

Sweatt suggests livestock owners check more often now that conditions are hot. He said, “You can’t turn your back on them 10 days to two weeks like you could in the winter.”

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