Battling Nature’s Fury: Cattle ranchers navigate extreme weather challenges

Heat stress events can pose significant risks to cattle herds— ranging from decreased feed intake to reduced weight gain and potential heat-related health issues.

From coast to coast, all summer long, cattle producers across the southern United States have been battling persistently high temperatures in the triple digits (some of the hottest ever recorded), attempting to protect their herds from the extremely difficult conditions. Heat stress events can pose significant risks to cattle, ranging from decreased feed intake to reduced weight gain and potential heat-related health issues.

Rancher Amelia Kent has been battling with these conditions in her operation in Georgia, which has been faced with an abnormally dry season marked by persistent D0 and D1 drought conditions for several months. The weather has taken its toll on the land, but for Kent, the challenges run even deeper as she navigates the repercussions of harsh freezes that disrupted her ranching schedule last year.

“We’ve been hovering abnormally dry—and D0 and D1—for at least a month or two,” Kent said, her voice tinged with concern. “The effects of this drought are clear in these pastures.”

While the broader effects of the drought are evident in the land’s appearance, Kent’s situation is compounded by the lingering aftermath of tough freezes experienced during Christmas and early spring. These consecutive weather challenges have set off a chain reaction, with last year’s adversities cascading into this year’s struggles, directly impacting the forthcoming calf crop that has yet to be born.

As Kent leads her herd, it is clear that the cattle’s grazing habits have been altered by the harsh climate.

“Cattle are not eating as much of the grass in front of them,” she said. “This means lighter cattle are heading to market.”

As she points out, the consequences are stark. Cattle arriving to market 25 to 50 pounds lighter than expected translates into significant revenue losses, especially when market prices are favorable. Each pound missed becomes a missed opportunity for profits, and the accumulated losses quickly add up.

While current market prices do provide a small glimmer of hope for cattle producers like Kent, she remains cautious in her outlook. Rising input costs and the precarious balance between expenses and returns temper her hope.

As Kent observes the cattle seeking shade and proximity to water sources, she underscores the significance of access to water and shelter in these challenging times. The necessity of water and shade rivals that of abundant grazing grounds. Although her ranch boasts ponds and water lines running through its properties, even these resources face depletion due to the drought’s relentless grip.

In this battle against nature’s fury, Kent’s particular property has faced a disproportionate struggle. The urgency to keep grass ahead of the cattle’s voracious appetites has disrupted the usual rotation, forcing a faster pace and intensifying her challenges.

“This particular farm has struggled more than all of our other locations in terms of being dry—all of them are dry, but I am chasing grass everywhere, especially here,” Kent said.

Of all the informative sessions and discussions at this week’s Feeding Quality Forum, one particularly valuable piece of advice resonated loudly for cattle producers facing the challenges of heat stress events. In his address to producers, A.J. Tarpoff, D.V.M., M.S. at Kansas State University, emphasized the power of preparedness as the ultimate tool in mitigating the impact of heat stress on livestock.

“The biggest thing is having a pre-developed plan,” Tarpoff said. “Working with your consultant veterinarian nutritionist. Having real conversations with the crews. Making sure all employees are on the same page. So when these things occur, they know when they’re going to implement their plan.”

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