Paul Grondahl
Times Union
Sat, 23 Jan 2010 21:48 EST

Copake – For hours, the backhoe and bulldozer worked at the grim task, burying the remains of a Gothic farming tragedy.

The backhoe’s large metal claws dug into the dirt and opened a long, deep trench in the fertile Columbia County soil, pocked with cow dung and the deep imprints of 1,500-pound Holstein hooves.

There was no delicate way to bury these 51 beasts. The bulldozer’s heavy, flat blade pushed the cows into the mass bovine grave, their striking black-and-white patterned hides gone slack in death.

For years, they had provided a livelihood for a dairyman who said little and bent to his arduous task generally alone, rarely saying much to neighbors, preferring to keep to himself.

Sometime before early afternoon on Thursday, Dean Pierson, a 59-year-old, second-generation dairy farmer, took a rifle and shot to death his 51 milking Holsteins, State Police said. He selected only the ones that had to be milked twice a day to prevent painful complications from setting in.

Pierson left unscathed some 50 other cows, the young stock, heifers and calves that don’t need to be milked and require less care.

And then, alone in the dairy barn where he arrived each morning before sunrise and finished up the day’s second milking long after sunset, Pierson turned the weapon on himself.

He left no suicide note, his wife said Friday.

“No one knows why for sure. He didn’t leave us anything to help out,” said his wife, Gwynneth.

She said she was home at the time of the shootings in the barn, but heard nothing. “Nothing seemed different,” she said.

A neighboring farmer found Pierson and the cows at around 1 p.m. and called 911.

“It’s horribly sad,” State Police Investigator Abdul Weed said. There were no signs of foul play. An investigation is continuing, although no charges are expected, he said.

Pierson said her husband had not been acting unusual of late. She would not comment on a State Police press release that said her husband had been reportedly despondent over recent personal issues.

“He’d been talking a lot to his mom,” she said.

Pierson apparently performed a farmer’s mercy killing on his milkers, relieving others of that burden, neighbors reckoned.

There was nobody else in his family, neither his wife nor four children, who shared his passion for the relentless toil of dairy farming, they said.

Pierson’s father, Helmer Thor Pierson, died in 2005 at age 92. He was a Swedish immigrant who started the dairy operation in 1951 along Weed Mine Road in Copake, christening it High Low Farm.

“Dean had no help on the farm and he worked really hard to do it all himself,” said a neighbor, Susan Kiernan. She and three generations of her family have operated a dairy farm on adjacent Valley View Road for decades.

Kiernan’s husband, David, and his brother own excavating equipment. And so they went to work Friday with a backhoe and bulldozer on their grim task. It’s just what farmers do, helping each other across the shoals of grief and hard luck. These are hard times for dairy farmers.

“It’s hard to hang in now and a lot of dairy farmers are going out of business,” Susan Kiernan said. “For us, it’s a lifestyle and we’ll just keep going.”

“We’re just trying to get through this,” said Pierson’s wife. “We need to figure out how to keep the farm going. It wouldn’t be right for all that work he put into it to go to nothing.”

Paul Grondahl can be reached at 454-5623 or by e-mail at pgrondahl@timesunion.com.