Even the most docile animals can turn says a Mid Wales farmer struggling to regain full strength.
“Don’t ever take a newly calved cow’s behaviour for granted… even the most docile animals can turn in seconds, as I learned to my cost.”
These are the words of Robert Lewis, a highly experienced Mid Wales farmer and former chair of Brecon & Radnor NFU, who is slowly building up strength almost 12 months after a cow whose new-born calf he was feeding attacked him.
Rob, who farms around 260 acres near Rhayader, suffered major injuries including five fractures to his T12 vertebrae. His wife Audrey watched the terrifying incident unfold in a matter of seconds, as the protective cow barged Rob from behind, before its frenzied attack of stamping, kicking and head-butting him as he lay on the floor.
Rob’s life was undoubtedly saved by the quick-thinking and sheer strength of one of his sons, Rhys, who rushed to the scene having heard his mum screaming over the roars of the angry cow.
“Rhys managed to physically barge the cow sideways, so that it momentarily stopped attacking me and in the few seconds following, he was able to drag me to safety outside.”
The nightmare began on a fateful morning in April 2021, when Rob spotted that a calf born just a couple of hours earlier was on its feet but not suckling. Having ascertained that the cow, a reliably calm animal, had blood in her colostrum he decided to prioritise the calf’s wellbeing. Armed with a jug of colostrum and a tubing kit, he and Audrey went back to the calving pen to assist.
“The cow was still completely calm, so I focused on getting the tube down the calf’s throat, holding it firmly between my legs with my back to the cow, while Audrey held the jug of colostrum.
“Unfortunately, the new-born made a choking noise and the sound of it spluttering, panicked the protective cow which immediately barged into the back of me, sending me sprawling.
Rob rolled up into a ball on the concrete floor in a bid to protect himself, but the angry cow was undeterred, determined to keep him down. Audrey realised she had no option but to clamber over a sheep feeder to relative safety and call the emergency services.
A locally-based paramedic from the St. John Ambulance service was on the scene very quickly and able to administer immediate first aid to Rob, by now outside the calving pen. He remembers being in agony and was obviously suffering from shock, but at that stage, although doubled over in pain, he had managed to stumble to his feet.
Rob says that what followed will be etched on his brain forever. The Wales Air Ambulance helicopter was on the scene almost immediately, he was safely strapped onto a body-board and flown to the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff. A full MRI scan revealed five fractures to the vertebrae, compression injuries with less serious lesions and bruising to his body, arms and legs.
Two days later, Rob was allowed home. But 48 hours later he suffered a relapse and could not move. This time, it took a team of local part-time firemen ‘many of them mates’ to lift him off the bed, strapped back on to a body board and down the narrow farmhouse stairs before being transported by land ambulance back to A&E in Cardiff.
More scans followed and Rob, who recently turned 60, was advised that he already had the sort of standard wear and tear to his back that many farmers acquire. He needed his substantial back brace for many more months, a lot more rest, regular physiotherapy, painkillers - everything his medical advisers could suggest to get him back to full strength.
“I’m trying to reduce my dependency on the pain relief, but nothing can really conquer the ongoing fatigue and the pain levels and spasms that still stop me getting more than three or four hours sleep a night.”
Rob says that had it not been for the support of his family and friends, the brilliant response of the emergency services and the Cardiff medical team who still monitor his progress regularly, he would not be where he is now, slowly trying to get back to normality. So, what should he have done differently that day?
“Like all farmers, I know the risks of working with large animals, but that day, I took the newly calved cow’s behaviour for granted - I went in to deal with a situation without considering what steps I should have taken to protect both myself and Audrey.
“That momentary lapse of judgement, rushing in without using a barrier to separate cow and calf, cost me heavily and will never happen again!
“Never work with unrestrained cattle or stock without utilising suitable handling facilities.
“Never underestimate the risk from cattle, even with good precautions in place and always consider handling equipment and escape routes.”
Footnote: For further information on farm safety visit the health and safety pages at www.gov.wales/farmingconnect or www.hse.gov.uk/agriculture. Alternatively, look up @farmsafetywales on Twitter and Facebook to find out what free resources you can access to make your farm a safer place.
*Rob Lewis of Glanelan Farm, Rhayader, pictured with his wife Audrey and son Rhys 12 months after Rob was badly injured by a newly-calved cow.