Considerations Contributing to Livestock Losses

Considerations Contributing to Livestock Losses

calf in snow

This winter has greatly impacted our livestock producers. We have received reports of livestock losses in February and early March and most recently, losses from blizzards and flooding. We have also been asked by various Farm Service Agency (FSA) directors about considerations for livestock losses where this winter could be considered an extreme and unusual situation. We recommend producers report livestock losses including livestock, feed, and fence losses to your Farm Service Agency within 30 days of the losses occurring. Additional information about the Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP) can be found on the Nebraska FSA website.

As we think about February weather data, what created challenges in particular for cow-calf producers was the extended period of wet combined with cold. Most recently, additional challenges have included blizzard conditions and flooding. The draws and sheltered areas that protected calves from the cold and wind are sometimes the same places that were swept away during the most recent flooding events. Even for cattle out in pasture or grazing cornstalks, for many locations, there hasn't been an opportunity for cattle to truly dry out, prolonging stress. Even for producers that bedded cattle, the bedding would get wet quickly because of saturated soil conditions.

Cattle with a wet hair coat are much more susceptible to cold and windchill. A wet hair coat raises the lower critical temperature at which cattle experience cold stress (from a temperature of 19° Fahrenheit to 59° Fahrenheit). This higher critical temperature means that cattle have to use more energy to maintain their body temperature and creates a situation where often the cattle just can't eat enough to meet their energy requirements. When this occurs, they begin to use body fat reserves. If this happens for an extended period of time, those reserves can become depleted and the animal will not be able to maintain body temperature and will die. These circumstances compare with those of a drought. In a drought, it isn't one or two days of conditions that result in the detrimental impact. It is the cumulative effect over an extended time, similar to what has occurred in many parts of the Nebraska over the last several weeks. Many cows that began the winter in good condition slowly lost reserves over the winter due the wet-cold conditions. Even before the "bomb cyclone" the first two-weeks of March were extremely severe.  

Unfortunately, cattle growers will continue to experience impacts from these circumstances for months to come. The stress on cows is going to impact colostrum quality and the wet saturated soil, from warmer temperatures and flooding, is going to create muddy conditions which will continue to increase energy needs. Growers should expect higher incidences of calf losses this spring due to disease, a ripple effect of these conditions.

This article and the video it links to, Preparing the Cow Herd for Cold Weather, by Rick Rasby, animal scientist and associate dean for Agriculture and Natural Resources, details the impact of wet, cold conditions on stress to cattle.

February General Weather Stats

The following generalized weather stats were compiled by Tyler Williams, cropping systems extension educator.

Since February 1, 2019, Nebraska has experienced:

  • Above normal snowfall: from 5 inches (west) to 20 inches (east) above normal
  • Total snowfall of at least 10 inches for most of Nebraska, and in eastern Nebraska, 20-30 inches
  • Average temperature was 10°F north/east and 20°F south/west
  • Minimum temperatures were 10-15°F below normal; maximum temperatures were 10-20°F below normal
  • The maximum temperature was below freezing for 20 (southwest) to 30 days (northeast)
  • Days the temp dropped below zero: 6-10 (south) to 20-24 (north)
  • There were 10-15 days with measurable precipitation

In the last two weeks:

  • Minimum temperatures dropped to 20 degrees below in the central and west, and 6-12 degrees below east
  • 4-6 (north) to 7-11 (south) days with min temp above zero; i.e., 8-10 (north) to 3-7 (south) days the temperature dropped below 0
  • There were 4-7 days with measurable precipitation – almost every other day
  • 0 days where temperatures were above 32°F, except along the Nebraska/Kansas border and in the southwest Panhandle
  • Snowfall was 2 (southwest) to 10 (central/east central) inches above normal
  • Snowfall ranged from 2-4 inches in the southwest and northeast and 7-12+ inches in the northwest, central, and east Nebraska
  • Windchills dropped to 20-30°F below zero
  • Cattle comfort index in "extreme" category

In conclusion, this winter has proven to be unique and severe. We recommend livestock producers report your losses. Nebraska Extension cares about you and recognizes the additional stress that can occur for producers and their families during times of crisis and loss. A number of resources are available. Also see Coping with Stress During Crisis.