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What’s Behind the Sudden Death of Thousands of Cattle in Kansas?

    Thousands of cattle are being reported dead in Kansas, which is reportedly being attributed to extremely high heat and humidity.

    Disturbing video of cattle lying dead in the pasture is fueling widespread speculation that the cattle may have died from another cause besides ‘heat stress.’ Estimates for the cattle deaths have ranged from 2,000 head up to 10,000 head.

    Amid soaring food prices and a spate of fires at meat packing and food processing plants, many are concerned that there could be something more sinister behind the cattle deaths than sunlight.

    The Kansas Department of Health and Environment spokesperson Matthew Lara told Reuters on Tuesday that the agency was aware of at least 2,000 cattle deaths in the state due to high temperatures and humidity. Kansas has an estimated 6.5 million cattle, ranking it as the third-largest cattle farming state, behind Texas and Nebraska.

    Temperatures reached a sweltering 108 degrees Fahrenheit in northwest Kansas prior to Monday, Drew Lerner, president of World Weather Inc., told the Washington Post. Blistering temperatures are expected to persist in parts of western Kansas and the Texas panhandle until this weekend, reaching approximately 110 degrees, although winds and lower humidity levels are expected to lead to fewer cattle deaths.

    “It’s going to be oppressively hot and stressful for the animals,” Lerner said.

    While many believe cattle are able to withstand extreme temperatures, they are not capable of sweating and rely on respiration to cool down, according to Farm Progress. A heat wave in Iowa in 2011 led to a similar death toll of 4,000 cattle in the state.

    “I’ve talked to producers who’ve been out there just constantly looking for things to do to protect those cattle,”  ICA spokeswoman Dal Grooms said at the time. “When it gets to be hot and humid like this, it’s very difficult to stop all losses.”

    Safeguards to lower cattle deaths in such high temperatures include providing cattle with extra water, daily health checks, additional shelter, and mist systems with industrial size fans.

    In an update to the article, there has been more expert analysis provided on the reported loss of the steer due to high heat and humidity.

    Becker News reached out to a number of cattle ranchers with decades of experience to get their assessment of the reports.

    “Cattle came handle high temps as long as they are healthy and have access to good water,” Missouri rancher Matt Graham told Becker News. “Open air feedlots have been around for a 100 years and this wouldn’t be the first time ambient temps have been in the 100’s. Something else caused these cattle to die. Could have been a number of things.”

    “If heat really was the cause of death I’d be curious how confined they were and how long they were at the feedlot… 30 days, 90 days, 180 days,” he added.

    Dr. Dan Thomson, a bovine vet at Iowa State who specializes in animal health welfare, spoke to Farm Journal on the loss of livestock.

    “During these bouts of extreme heat the cattle can’t dissipate the heat at night because there’s not night cooling and so this perfect storm hits. No different than a tornado hitting a cattle feeding facility or a derecho or whatever and we have these natural disasters,” Thomson explains.

    “There’s mitigation strategies that we place, whether its nutrition, strategies for increasing water tank space and decreasing movement of cattle, all these things we’re doing on a day to day basis.” Thomson says.

    “Feedlot managers and their crews have been putting themselves in danger to save cattle in the extreme weather conditions, hauling water and providing bedding for the cattle,” he adds. “If not, there could have been higher mortality rates.”

    There are a surprising number of livestock deaths each year, due partly to routine losses and partly to negligence. A Guardian investigation suggests that more than 20 million farm animals die each year from exposure and transportation.

    “Tens of millions of farm animals in the US are dying before they can be slaughtered,” the publication reported. “Approximately 20 million chickens, 330,000 pigs and 166,000 cattle are dead on arrival, or soon after, at abattoirs in the US every year, analysis of publicly available data shows. A further 800,000 pigs are calculated to be unable to walk on arrival.”

    Official records of how the animals died are not published, the publication noted, but veterinarian and welfare specialists told the Guardian the main causes were likely to be heat stress, freezing temperatures, and trauma.

    The USDA has a livestock indemnity program that covers up to 75% of the market value of the cattle in the event of a qualifying loss condition. The program may provide a perverse incentive for ranchers and farmers not to take extra care safeguarding their livestock.

    As beef prices skyrocket, Congress should revisit how it is protecting America’s herds, ensuring that severe climate does not lead to more pain — for consumers and for the cattle themselves.


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