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Heat Stress is Serious for Cattle in Kansas

By Brandi Buzzard Frosbe, Kansas Living Magazine


Whew – who turned up the heat?! Summer has arrived at our home on the range and while it’s nice to not battle snow drifts and sleet to take care of our livestock, the excessive heat presents challenges of its own.

Just as in humans, heat stress can be harmful to cattle, and even deadly, so both on our ranch, and throughout the rest of the beef community, we take the following precautions to manage our cattle in the sweltering summer heat.

1. Access to fresh water for cattle

Access to fresh water is crucial for metabolic and biological functions in all animals and during the summer, water requirements double. All the pens on our ranch have automatic waterers so water access is never restricted and, thankfully, after a wet spring, the ponds and streams in our pastures are full as well. Other cattle owners in drought-stricken areas have to haul water to their cattle daily, which is both time-consuming and costly.

2. Shade helps keep cows cool

My father, a lifelong cowboy, prefers summer to winter, because in his words, “You can always find a shade tree.” While I disagree with his preference of sweltering heat over no bugs or sunburn, I will say that shade availability makes a big difference in the mitigation of heat stress in cattle. Generally, it’s cooler in the shade and our pastures all have at least one stand of trees to provide shade to our cow herd. Additionally, in the pens at our house, we have man-made shades that provide shelter from the sun, like what is found in many feedyards. Furthermore, a large percentage of our herd has red hide, instead of black, and that helps with lowering the risk for heat stress as well.

3. Keep cattle handling to the early morning or late evening

A decade ago, when I was embarking on my first training program for a half marathon, I was quickly reminded that the middle of the day is a dreadful time to be expending energy. The same rule applies for any type of cattle handling – it’s far better to move or process cattle in the early morning or later in the evening when it starts to cool down. Moving cattle during the hottest part of the day can easily cause them to overheat, which is exacerbated if they are closely grouped together in an alley or corral.

4. When cattle are hot, they graze less

Ideally, from May to October, our cattle graze in pastures so unharvested forage is their No. 1 nutrition source. During a heatwave, cattle will “shade up” and stop grazing until the evening when temperatures start to cool off, causing a few potential consequences. For example, if cattle aren’t getting adequate nutrition because it’s too hot to eat, they will start to lose body condition, may produce less milk for their calves and could experience long-term fertility challenges. Those are all production-focused concerns, but from an animal welfare point of view, if cattle aren’t grazing and are losing their body condition, they may generate a weaker immune response to health challenges and illness.

Sadly, sometimes despite our best efforts, we cannot out-prepare Mother Nature. A natural disaster occurred in southwest Kansas recently at several feedyards. The temperature went from manageable and mild to over 100 degrees, with very high humidity for that area and unfortunately, the nights did not cool down to allow cattle to dissipate their body heat. Additionally, due to the sudden nature of the cocktail of heat, humidity and lack of wind, many cattle succumbed to heat stress over several days. Generally, cattle have a few weeks to acclimate to summer heat as it gradually transitions from late spring to summer, however that was not the case this year and the result was deadly.

It’s important to remember the feedyard employees and veterinarians were doing all they could to help the cattle by providing plenty of water, cool bedding in the pens and constant monitoring but Mother Nature can be very cruel. You can listen to a feedyard owner and a feedyard veterinarian discuss this natural weather disaster in this Instagram live video.

When the potential for these heat challenges arises, we monitor our cattle closely for any signs of severe heat stress such as labored breathing, restlessness and drooling. Consistent monitoring allows us to catch most issues before they become serious and/or deadly, but even then, sometimes things are out of our hands.