How livestock deal with extreme heat

A recurring recording of News 2 Today from 5-7 a.m. Monday - Friday.
Published: Jun. 22, 2022 at 6:57 PM CDT|Updated: Jun. 24, 2022 at 9:58 AM CDT
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NORTH PLATTE, Neb. (KNOP) - As temperatures have been warming up across Nebraska, humans aren’t the only ones feeling the effects.

Farm livestock spend the majority of their lives outside in the elements and need to find ways to keep cool too.

Last week, at least 2,000 cattle deaths occurred in southwestern Kansas due to high temperatures and humidity. When high humidity levels are seen with warm air, that tends to make the air feel even hotter.

Randy Saner from the University of Nebraska, Extension Office in North Platte said, “What happens is, when we have cool weather but then we have these hot days when it doesn’t cool down at night, so we have 102, 105 and we get nights that are 80 or so, and then we get high humidity, those are all issues that we need to look at.”

Randy Saner petting a cow
Randy Saner petting a cow(Randy Saner petting a cow)

If cattle do not have the chance to cool off at night, major problems arise. It does not give the cattle the time to drink more water or lower their core temperature.

“That high humidity is a problem because the cattle don’t get evaporation from the wind. We also have black surfaces, so if you’re in a feed yard you have a dark surface that puts off heat.”

Heat transfer is a basic thing that is always happening, even when standing still.

Heat can be transferred to livestock directly from the sun’s radiation. When that radiation hits the ground, it’s also reflected back up onto the animal. The cattle are also always making contact with the ground, and that contact also lets heat transfer between the two. This doesn’t mean that someone with bigger feet will get more heat from the ground, but if a cow lying on the ground versus standing on it, that is when this comes into play. If the wind is blowing, that can help cool or warm an animal.

Cattle also have a special process in their stomach so that when they eat, it generates warmth. Things like panting, sweating, and drinking are the easiest way for an animals like cattle to down.

Cattle Heat Transfer Infographic
Cattle Heat Transfer Infographic(Cattle Heat Transfer Infographic)

Because of water being such a major part of cattle cooling off, Saner also mentioned that water intake from cattle rises sharply during times of heat as they try to cool down.

Saner said, “Water intake just about doubles in really hot days. So having lots of water available is very important.”

We also spoke to the owner of Lincoln County Feed Yards, Steve Scholz.

“We try to use good animal husbandry. We keep cattle loose when it gets hot, as far as we don’t keep them in pens. We try to minimize animal movements. We try not to run processing through the processing barn. If we have to do something we do it early in the morning when its a lot cooler. But the biggest deal is adequate water.”

Steve Scholz walking in cattle pen
Steve Scholz walking in cattle pen(Steve Scholz walking in cattle pen)

Scholz told us he was aware of what happened in Kansas.

“It would be devastating. They are out there trying to do their normal stuff and you throw a work load on an emotionally it’s tough, I’m sure, to be in a situation like that. It’s carnage that you have to go out and pick up.”

Scholz also said, “When you look at it, the total loss for the feed yard wasn’t very big... It’s still devastating, don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t as huge as it makes it look like. The other problem is that when something like that starts coming on, it’s hard to get around to that many cattle.”

Scholz also added that while most ranchers, including himself, have disaster insurance for their herds, heat deaths are not covered even though winter weather conditions are.

Cattle standing at the top of a hill to feel the breeze
Cattle standing at the top of a hill to feel the breeze(Cattle standing at the top of a hill to feel the breeze)

There are many different ways to prepare a herd for the heat. According to Saner, while wind might be annoying to ranchers, it is an important factor in cooling cattle.

Saner said, “Windy days do really help us in the feed yards as well as pastures even though we don’t like them because they get old at times, but they’re good.”

When going around the Extension Office’s pasture to see cattle, Saner pointed out how the cattle stand at the top of a hill in order to easily get wind they wouldn’t have if they were down the hill.

Saner added, “These creatures are so much smarter than many people give them credit for.”

Shade is also a good thing, as long as the trees providing shade are high enough off the ground they don’t obstruct the wind.

Saner stressed how important it is to be prepared when you see the combination of high temperatures and humidity. He also recommended installing sprinklers and keeping the cattle’s pen clean, as waste can store heat. A full list of recommendations provided by Saner can be found here.

Steve Scholz inspecting his herd
Steve Scholz inspecting his herd(Steve Scholz inspecting his herd)

Scholz ended the interview by saying, “In a place with a weather anomaly like they had, that’s going to be the driving part of the result in what happens. I don’t know if there was anything he really could have done about it.”

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