Heat stress causes high death loss in Kansas feedyards
Similar to livestock losses due to blizzards and floods, extreme heat, coupled with high humidity and lack of wind can cause heat stress and death in livestock. Thousands of cattle in Kansas were lost recently to this phenomenon. “We had a natural disaster in Southwest Kansas on June 11th, 2022 and in the days that followed that greatly affected cattle being fed for slaughter. It wasn’t a tornado or a flood or government conspiracy to dismantle our food supply. There’s no mysterious disease or theory, we know exactly what happened,” said Tera Barnhardt, DVM, MS. “It’s called a heat index crisis. Prior to this day, our average high temperatures were in the 70’s and the night temperatures in the 40’s, the wind was normal and we were receiving rain showers that we so desperately needed.”
Barnhardt is a feedlot veterinarian from Southwest Kansas, she said that the cattle were not acclimated to the heat as it went from 80 degrees to over a 100 in the space of a day, with no real cooling at night. “On June 11th, temperatures rose, humidity was high, and wind speed nearly ceased. This is an emergency for cattle. Cattle can not compensate for this type of weather event if they do not get a period of night cooling. For several days this continued. Our people did everything in their power to save as many animals as they could. Our people are amazing and tired and weary. We lost a lot of cattle and we are physically affected by each loss because we know first hand the resources and expertise that goes into raising safe, wholesome and delicious beef for our consumers.”
“There are three components of weather conditions to create a situation that cattle can not handle. When you have all three, cattle build up heat in their bodies and can not get rid of it. These are high temperatures, high humidity and no wind. If you have only two of these things then cattle can usually survive, as they are able to cool themselves,” said Matt Thompson, former feedlot owner/manager in the United States and Australia. “Events that cause severe death loss occur over a number of days. Cattle can tolerate the three extreme conditions for about a day, but if they can’t get cooled down at night they are in danger of dying the next day if conditions persist.”
This weather event was geographically centered in Haskell County and Grant County Kansas. This is cattle feeding country and a region typically with a climate that is superior for raising cattle for slaughter. Over 600,000 head of cattle are on feed in just those two counties alone, with two and a half million on feed in Southwest Kansas. Barnhardt said she believes the actual death losses will be north of five thousand head but hopefully less than ten thousand as they are still dealing with extreme heat and stressed cattle. Numbers devastating to the owners and the employees but actually a very small percentage of cattle in the region.
A viral video of dead cattle has been circulating on social media so the unfortunate cattle losses have garnered a great deal of media attention. “We were seeing deaths four to five days before it went viral. Most of the deaths were in the immune compromised and those ready to ship. They are the heaviest and have the most fat. They didn’t all drop dead in one day and we are still dealing with cattle suffering from heat stress.”
Media has been reporting 10,000 or more dead but Barnhardt said the numbers have come from the state as feedyards can apply for emergency burial permits. The permits are issued but not all are needed or used.
She said that the feedyards are very full right now due to the markets and more cattle going on feed. So with the added numbers most yards don’t have a lot of open pens to spread cattle out more and many don’t want to add the social stress by disrupting animal groups. “Our number one thing we employ (during extreme heat) is a no cattle movement policy unless absolutely necessary. If they have to be moved across the yard for shipping those moves are made at night. Extra water tanks are also placed in the back of pens so more animals can take advantage of the evaporation cooling from the water.”
She said even spreading extra bedding such as corn stalks in the pens can give the animals something to nest in and has been proven to help lower their body temperature. This is especially helpful when the pen floor is dark and humid from urine and manure. “Sprinkling with water is the last thing employed as it can add humidity and without wind it won’t evaporate and cool the animals.”
“Black hided cattle except Wagyu are more susceptible to heat stress than light hided cattle because black absorbs heat,” Thompson said. “These events have happened since the beginning of time. One big reason large scale cattle feeding moved to the high plains area is that it is rare to have all three things at once. The most important thing is you don’t want to block airflow. Well meaning do gooders have attempted to force feedlots to build shade. This can be difficult and somewhat dangerous in high wind areas that feedlots are usually built, and they can make it worse if they block wind.”
“We are raising high quality beef which comes at a higher risk,” Barnhardt said.
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