Producers maintain through weather rollercoaster

Dec 13, 2013

Sub-zero temperatures, bitterly cold winds, snow and ice can cost ranchers dearly in loss of cattle each winter, but most of the animals remarkably are able to withstand extreme weather if they can stay dry and keep their bellies full.

An arctic blast from Canada plunged much of the United States into a frigid ice box this December, pushing the mercury way below zero for seemingly endless days, making life miserable for producers and livestock alike, unfit for man and beast.

In 2007, the National Weather Service started looking at how to prevent adverse weather impacts on cattle in eastern Montana by issuing cold advisories. “The biggest concern is new livestock so vulnerable to heavier, wetter snow,” said Tanja Fransen, Warning Coordination Meteorologist with NWS in Glasgow, MT.

Cattle deaths caused by extreme weather can cost an estimated $1 billion, with $250 million of that pegged to direct losses of newborns, Fransen told Western Livestock Journal.

Even a 10th of an inch of moisture in snow pack can make it difficult to keep cows and calves dry, especially when wind chills also make it dangerously cold outside, Fransen said. “Livestock are pretty well adapted to these extremes. … Ranchers know how to take care of their cattle.”

Many cattle huddle together between wind breaks to survive, she said. Fresh hay, food and grass also improve their odds. Trying to keep water pumps flowing and haul trucks running are other challenges when temperatures plunge during the winter.

Fransen said she is bemused by people in larger cities and urban areas who are upset that cattle are left to graze outdoors during the winter. “They don’t understand why the cattle can’t be kept in barns at night,” she said, noting a rancher’s 5,000 head can be spread over hundreds of square miles.

She said, “Winter Storm Atlas,” the storm that wiped out thousands of cattle in South Dakota last October, was well forecast, but the blizzard’s severity, wind velocity and high moisture snow content overwhelmed the livestock. When that storm hit, temperatures that early season were 60 degrees warmer than this December’s cold siege, which cattle managed to survive, Fransen observed.

Cory Eich, President of the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association, said an estimated 15,000 cattle were destroyed by October’s freak blizzard, but he suspects that could be a third or a half of the livestock actually lost. “It could be next June before we ever know.”

Up to 20 percent of the cows that survived the onslaught are miscarrying their calves due to stress and cannot maintain their pregnancies, he said.

“I don’t know in history if there has ever been a blizzard of this magnitude at that time of year,” Eich told WLJ. “The long-term impact on western South Dakota is going to be there. No amount of hay is going to get them back to where they were. There’s going to be some who do have to go out of business.”

Eich noted a lot of the impacted ranchers are fourth or fifth generation operators. “One whole generation’s net worth has been wiped out. … This one’s going to be talked about for 100 years.”

Two to three inches of cold rain in front of the blizzard were the real culprit for the high cattle death toll, he said. The cattle at the first of October had not grown their winter coats. Some of the cows driven into corn fields wintered the storm better, but some ranchers said they lost weaned calves in their own protected yards due to the blizzard.

Typically, an early advent of winter means a long cold winter, Eich said. Recently, temperatures where he runs roughly 425 cattle about 60 miles north of Sioux Falls dropped to 17 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, breaking the previous record of minus 12 degrees for the same day.

South Dakota is one of the nation’s top cattle producing states, and agriculture is its leading economic sector. South Dakota Agriculture Secretary Lucas Lentsch said nothing could have prepared the state’s ranchers and livestock for the devastating early October blizzard.

“The storm was an indiscriminate killer. It took the lives of cattle, sheep, horses, buffalo, deer and antelope,” Lentsch said. “Adding to the loss, many ranchers were only days away from marketing their calves, paying their bills and reinvesting for the future.”

Noting miles and miles of fences need repair and seedstock must be replaced, he added: “The producers who lost livestock in this storm lost more than just the product of one growing season. They lost years of work. In many cases, a steadfast commitment over multiple generations to developing their herd’s genetic traits vanished in a matter of hours.”

South Dakota State University reported 12 counties were hardest hit, where an estimated 769,000 head of cattle and calves were raised, including 456,000 beef cows on ranches. The state’s veterinary office estimates 25,000 head may have perished.

“The impact on individual ranchers suffering the losses is especially large. Some individual ranchers have had confirmed losses of over 20 percent of their herd. Though not verified through official reporting venues, many reports indicate much higher losses, up to 50 percent of herds in some cases,” the university stated in a report, estimating it is possible some individual ranchers could suffer financial losses of $250,000 or more.

With total U.S. beef cow numbers at the lowest since the 1950s, high breeding stock is in short supply across the nation. The value of losing decades of genetic selection in a herd is incalculable, the SDSU report said.

“It is likely that some producers hardest-hit by this storm could become insolvent as they try to recover,” the university reported. “Additionally, the loss of an estimated 25,000 head of beef cows will not only have a nearly $40 million direct impact on ranchers who owned the cows, but the magnified indirect and induced economic impacts will be felt in the regional economy as ranchers spend less money on goods and services, which ultimately will affect nearly all Main Street businesses in the area.”

While South Dakota was faced with drought last year, this year it harvested a tremendous hay crop, which Eich called a “godsend.” Corn costs also are down by half and cattle are worth much more this year.

“We were running on empty before,” he said, noting he was able to graze cattle 90 days straight last year without feeding them because of a mild winter. “Barring this storm we had, it’s a great time to be in the cow/calf business.”

Cattle specialists in Washington state, Wyoming and Kansas say so far this year’s winter has not hampered operations in their states, where ranchers enjoy healthy prices for their livestock.

Vic Stokes and Jack Field, Washington Cattlemen’s Association (WCA) President and Executive Vice President, respectively, told WLJ that cattle producers in their state are coping well with winter cold, but they are concerned about drought-like conditions leaving the ground bare.

“We’ve been through cold snaps before in the past. We’re pretty astute at being able to handle things,” Stokes said, noting temperatures recently were five degrees below zero where he ranches 90 miles northwest of Wenatchee, but it has been historically 15 to 20 degrees below zero.

“There’s a plan in place to feed more hay if necessary and put out bedding. … Cows really are comfortable when they lie on cold ground.”

The WCA held a meeting this month near Snoqualmie Pass in the Cascades east of Seattle, but parking lots were bare for lack of snow. “Winter has been manageable for folks, but it’s hard to say what the future might hold. We need snow and precipitation for next year, but as of right now folks are doing relatively well,” Field said.

Stokes said there is no snow on his property when there should be 18 to 20 inches and there is only 18 to 20 inches in the Snoqualmie area when there should be several feet this time of year.

“I’m more concerned about what next summer will have for runoff and irrigation possibilities, but I don’t want to get too neurotic too soon,” he said, pointing out that high value crops in the Columbia and Yakima basins depend heavily on reservoirs.

Jim Magagna, Wyoming Stock Growers Association Executive Vice President, said he did not hear any grumbling from his organization’s more than 300 members during their recent winter convention in Casper about the winter cold or market conditions. Attendance was particularly strong and a fundraising auction garnered record proceeds.

“I didn’t hear a lot of great concern. … This was about as positive a convention I can recall,” Magagna said. “There’s no indication this is the beginning of a long hard winter.”

While strong winds were lashing part of the state and creating snow drifts, temperatures have been warming slightly above zero. The state has enjoyed good fall moisture and pretty decent grass, he said.

Feeder cattle and calves are selling at “almost incredible prices,” Magagna said. All of Wyoming’s cattle and calves total about 1.3 million, with 700,000 of those breeding cattle.

“My sense is from everything I see and hear, this is just a good time to be in the business. It’s not too often in the livestock business, in my experience, that everything comes together at the same time,” he said. “If there’s a cloud on the horizon, it’s the federal government.”

Todd Domer, Kansas Livestock Association Communications Vice President, said Kansas has had a pretty typical early winter with troublesome snow and ice storms striking north and south of the state. The biggest challenge has been keeping water flowing and hauling feed for cattle.

Drought conditions have abated somewhat and moisture is welcome, Domer said. The western third of Kansas has been worst hit by drought.

“The livestock industry is doing very well considering what we came through the last two or three years,” Domer said. — Mark Mendiola, WLJ Correspondent

Key Points

• Hard winter weather can cause historic damage; some lost everything in the Atlas Blizzard

• Hope exists for the future; moisture and good calf prices helpful