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Was it cruel?


As dairy farmers struggled, some of their cows died

HILLSDALE–It is another tragedy to add to the ever-growing list of those that have befallen area dairy farmers in the past few months–charges of animal cruelty brought against a family known to friends and neighbors as hardworking, dedicated farmers.

Jim Clapp, 76, his wife Ida, 74, and their son Charles, 49, were each charged last week with 33 misdemeanor counts of failure to provide proper sustenance to some of their dairy animals by Columbia-Greene Humane Society investigators and Sheriff’s deputies.

Officials said they found dead animals–four cows and seven calves–and others that appeared “emaciated.” But what led to the death of some animals and caused others to become malnourished at Sunny Mead dairy farm is not a case of black or white like the markings of a Holstein.

The Clapps, who did not respond to requests for an interview, are third-generation dairy farming family. It wasn’t too long ago that their newly built, free-stall barn and milking parlor on West End Road were a state-of-the-art dairy operation heralded with a community open house, tours of the facilities and feature news stories with photographs in newspapers.

“It’s a tragedy for our whole community that people who have spent 50 years of their lives, three generations, taking care of animals should be prosecuted for abuse and neglect,” said Hillsdale Supervisor Art Baer this week. Calling the arrest of the Clapps an “over-reaction and a real shame,” Mr. Baer said he has known the family for as long as he has lived here, noting that the Clapp family has farmed his land, rotating crops of alfalfa, hay and corn for more than 25 years.

Mr. Baer, a former town justice, described the charges against the family as “unjustified,” adding that the Clapps are “caring, hardworking farmers.” He said he spoke to the family and they are very upset about what’s happened.

The situation is “doubly painful” and “more disturbing” to them, their family and friends because they are “a shy, private family,” said the supervisor.

The Clapps’ farm is for sale, they have sold a number cows and the plan was to pasture out the remaining head and sell them by the end of the summer, said Mr. Baer.

With the recent sale of their milking herd and the cessation of milking operations, 30 or so heifers and dry cows remain on the farm, Victor Meyers, the attorney representing the Clapps in this cruelty case said this week. That’s fewer animals than the humane society reported as being there.

The remaining animals were always fed and are still being fed, said Mr. Meyers. The animals authorities found dead on the farm all died of natural causes, not of starvation, and none of the charges pertain to them, he said.

Because the Clapps were involved with seeing to the sale of their herd, they had not yet had the time to bury the dead animals. The law says animals have to be buried within 72 hours after a peace officer gives the order, said Mr. Meyers, and that order was complied with.

“Most farmers have fallen on hard times,” said Mr. Meyers referring to the dairy price collapse of last year.

According to figures released by the state Department of Agriculture and Markets last month, the unprecedented losses to producers amounted to about $100 per cow per month statewide. For an average size New York dairy farm of 100 cows, “the monthly loss was $10,000 per month.”

The elder Clapps are struggling to keep up with the workload. They are also facing the realization that dairy farming–their life’s work–is something they can no longer do, said Mr. Meyers.

“I think it’s unfortunate” that they have been charged though they have provided feed for their animals “as best they can. These people are not cruel to their animals, it’s just the opposite,” said the attorney.

Local veterinarian George Beneke was at Sunny Mead farm when humane society officials were there.

“It’s complicated,” he said of the situation.

The Clapps “have had it tougher than a lot of other farmers,” said Dr. Beneke, who has over 40 years of experience in the field. “They haven’t had any excess money for treatment and vaccinations, and I wished they had wormed them, but there was feed in front of those animals, though there was not money for grain,” he said.

“Some of the animals looked very well and others looked very thin, but there are a lot of thin animals in the county right now, if you look closely,” Dr. Beneke said.

“They were trying to do the best with the feed stuffs they had–haylage and corn silage–but some of it had spoiled. Though they tried to use only the best of it, it was very difficult.”

Before the sale of the milking herd, the three of them were trying to take care of 175 head, which is more than they should have been doing, he said. The family hoped to make it through the winter, waiting for the spring grass so they could pasture the animals.

The dead animals died of gangrene, mastitis, giving birth and scours–none of them died of starvation, the vet confirmed.

“Their judgment could have been better,” says the vet who remained sympathetic to the difficulties the family faced. Still “it takes some source of income” to pay for an adequate parasite treatment and vaccination program, he said.

Ron Perez, humane society president and investigator, agreed the “economic woes” of dairy farmers is a factor in the case, but he said that the Clapps are experienced dairy farmers and should have asked for help from the humane society and the local dairy community.

In his experience with cases of neglect, Dr. Beneke said, it can sometimes “happen very slowly, because farmers are around the animals everyday they don’t realize maybe they’re losing a pound a day, it’s not deliberate.”

He said the Clapps’ animals were not dehydrated, though an official found a watering trough that did not have any water in it. “A lot of people would be in jail if they were arrested every time their dogs did not have fresh water in front of them,” said the vet.

A program to deal with parasites has been set up at the farm and instruction about better selection of silage has been given to the family, said the doctor.

Mr. Perez said the humane society got the call that one cow was dead at the farm, and within 48 hours 11 animals were dead, something he said is uncommon even in the case of an outbreak of e-coli. “Things went too far; the animals did suffer,” he said.

Officials went to the farm three different times and the situation did not change, said Mr. Perez, who believes management at the farm fell by the wayside. “I grew up around dairy farms and worked on dairy farms. I’m sympathetic to the plight of dairy farmers, but that does not excuse that they did not reach out for help,” he said.

The whole situation has left the family in a daze, said Dr. Beneke, the only thing to do is to “try to help them through that daze.”

The Clapps were scheduled to appear for arraignment in Hillsdale Court Wednesday, April 28 after this story went to press. Mr. Meyers said he planned to enter pleas of not guilty for his clients and then expected the case to be adjourned until a later date.

Mr. Baer said he hoped the charges would be dismissed.

To contact Diane Valden email

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