Cattlemen fighting to keep livestock alive and healthy through severe cold
Just because the temperatures drop to below zero and snow is falling, ranchers cannot stop working. Animals need to be taken care of.
Castleton rancher C.J. Blew, along with his three teenagers and his brother, are up during the night in case their Red Angus cows start to give birth.
"We've been checking all night," Blew said. "It takes significant work."
Because the temperatures are unusually low, ranchers are breaking ice at least twice a day where their cattle drink.
Wade Redger, a fourth-generation rancher in Plains, is thankful the wind is not as strong where he is. He has brought his few-hundred-strong herd closer to shelter, and has put up round bales for windbreaks on his farm, Redger Farms. Like Blew, he and his family are busy breaking ice and checking on the animals.
Tall grass and higher-quality feed
In addition to the windbreaks, Blew keeps his animals out in 5-foot-tall grass. These grasses help protect his animals against the wind. He made trails in the grasses so he can deliver food.
"It's all about energy," said A.J. Tarpoff, the veterinarian for K-State Research and Extension. "With this type of weather, we need to increase their comfort."
Tarpoff said when the temperatures drop below 18 degrees, cattle need more energy.
"For every degree below 18, that increases 1% of the maintenance energy requirements of that animal," he said. "They need to eat more."
Tarpoff suggests feeding the cattle better-quality hay — brome hay as opposed to prairie hay.
Justin Waggoner, a beef systems specialist with K-State Research and Extension, suggested high quality forages, like alfalfa, may be used as a supplement.
"They can withstand these temperatures," Tarpoff said. "They are pretty tough animals."
According to Tarpoff, the snow on the animals' backs is a good sign. It means their hair is thick.
"Cattle do adapt," he said. "If we provide those animals nutrition windbreaks and bedding, they can do extremely well."
As for bedding, Tarpoff recommends wheat straw and corn stalks.
Calving season amid the cold weather
The most difficult aspect of this weather is calving. As much of Kansas is in the calving season, ranchers like Blew and Redger are on the alert.
Once a calf is born, even if it is at 3 a.m., Blew takes that little calf and carries it into his work area and warms it up. These calves usually weigh between 50 and 70 pounds. Once in the warmth, Blew and his family towel the calves dry and use a blow dryer.
"If you don't bring them in, they will die," Blew said.
Tarpoff said some ranchers use a hot box or must immerse the animal in water to adjust its temperature. If the rancher places the animal in water, the water temperature must be raised gradually, so as not to place the calf in stress. In addition, a human must be in the water with the animal, making sure the calf is OK. This method can take up to an hour and a half.
"The biggest thing with baby calves is getting them dry," Tarpoff said. "Their cold hair has no thermal value."
On the Blew ranch, while one family member is warming up the calf, another is bringing the mother to the enclosed barn. Once the calf is dry, they carry the calf over to its mother in the barn so it can feed.
"Thankfully, our heifers are just getting started," Blew said.
Redger said his calves are a bit older and are doing well with their mothers out in the field. But he is continually checking on them.
"They seem to be fine," he said. "They're protected enough."
Animals are coping
"It's not normal weather, but I've seen worse," Redger said. "We've seen these temperatures with 40 mph winds."
Redger also has two horses that hang out with his cattle. And like them, the horses are making do.
"God created them to handle this kind of temperature," he said. "They learn to survive."