Heat stress is blamed for thousands of cattle deaths in Kansas

Thousands of cattle in southwestern Kansas pastures have died in recent days from heat stress due to rising temperatures, high humidity and little wind, industry officials said.

The final number remains unclear, but as of Thursday, at least 2,000 heat-related deaths were reported to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the state agency that helps dispose of cadavers. Agency spokesman Matt Lara said he expects that number to increase as more feedlots report losses from this week’s heatwave.

The cattle death has sparked unsubstantiated reports on social media and elsewhere that something other than the weather is at play, but Kansas agriculture officials said there was no indication of any other cause.

Cattle feeding at a feedlot near Dodge City, Kansas March 9, 2007. Thousands of cattle at feedlots in southwest Kansas have died over the past few days from heat stress combined with rising temperatures combined with high humidity and little wind, industry officials said on Thursday, June 16th, 2022.

Orlin Wagner/AP

“This was a real weather event — it was localized to a specific region in southwestern Kansas,” said AJ Tarpoff, a livestock veterinarian at Kansas State University. “Yes, temperatures were rising, but the more important reason it was detrimental was that we had a huge increase in humidity … and at the same time, wind speeds actually dropped significantly, which is rare for western Kansas.”

Temperatures last week were in the 70s and 80s, but on Saturday they rose to over 100 degrees, said Scarlett Hagins, spokeswoman for the Kansas Livestock Association.

“And it was this sudden change in not allowing the cattle to acclimate that caused the heat stress problems in them,” she said.

The deaths represent a huge economic loss because the animals, which typically weigh about 1,500 pounds, are worth about $2,000 a head, Hagins said. Federal disaster programs will help some producers who have suffered a loss, she added.

And the worst could be over. Nighttime temperatures were cooler and — as long as there’s a breeze — the animals are able to recover, Tarpoff said.

Hagins said heat-related deaths are rare in the industry because ranchers take precautions like providing extra drinking water, changing feeding schedules so animals don’t digest during the heat of the day and using sprinklers to keep them cool .

“Heat stress is always an issue for cattle at this time of year and so they put mitigation protocols in place to be prepared for things like that,” she said.

Many cattle had not yet shed their winter fur when the heat wave hit.

“This is a 10, 20 year type event. This is not a normal event,” said Brandon Depenbusch, feedlot operator Innovative Livestock Services in Great Bend, Kansas. “It’s extremely abnormal, but it happens.”

While his feedlot had “zero issues,” he noted that his part of the state didn’t experience the same combination of high temperatures, high humidity, light winds and no cloud cover that struck southwestern Kansas.

Elsewhere, ranchers have not been hit as hard.

The Nebraska Department of Agriculture and Nebraska ranchers said they had received no reports of above-average cattle deaths in the state, despite a heat index well above 100 degrees this week.

Oklahoma City National Stockyards President Kelli Payne said since temperatures soared past 90 degrees last Saturday after plummeting from the mid-70s as of March 1.

“We have water and sprinklers here to help mitigate the heat and the heat wave,” Payne said, but “we have no control over that pesky Mother Nature.”

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