Check out these five stories in the news this week.
1. Last week, Kansas cattle producers suffered a tragedy when heat stress killed at least 2,000 cattle in two counties. The temperatures didn’t drop far below the 100 degree mark even when the darkness hit. Now, this week, all eyes are back on the state as a heat wave sweeps across the country again.
According to the Weather Channel, temperatures for the rest of the summer months are forecast to be hotter than average in much of the Lower 48, especially in the central and eastern states.
An area from the Front Range of the Rockies and Plains to the East Coast is predicted to see temperatures that are the most above average from July through September, according to an updated outlook from The Weather Company, an IBM Business, and Atmospheric G2. The core of the most above average temperatures for that three-month period is centered from the Central Plains into the mid-Mississippi Valley.
Only the Southwest and a sliver of the Pacific Northwest are expected to see temperatures slightly cooler than average for the rest of summer.
Managing Heat Stress in Cow-Calf Operations
2. Heat stress is caused by a combination of environmental factors including temperature, relative humidity, solar radiation, air movement and precipitation.
During the summer we need to assess the heat stress that cattle are under. Cattle on pasture are not as susceptible to heat stress as feedlot cattle because they have the ability to seek shade, water and air movement to cool themselves. In addition, radiant heat from dirt or concrete surface is increased for feedlot cattle.
At temperatures above 80 degrees Fahrenheit cattle can endure physiologic stress trying to deal with their heat load. Although cattle at this temperature are not at risk of dying they will have an increased maintenance requirement to cope with the heat.
Compared to other animals, cattle can’t dissipate their heat load very effectively. Cattle do not sweat effectively and rely on respiration to cool themselves. A compounding factor on top of climatic conditions is the fermentation process within the rumen generates additional heat that cattle need to dissipate.
Heat production from feed intake peaks 4 to 6 hours after feeding. Since cattle do not dissipate heat effectively they accumulate a heat load during the day and dissipate heat at night when it is cooler.
Any time the Temperature-Humidity Index (THI) is above 80 cattle will be under heat stress. Hot weather following precipitation can increase the THI dramatically. Just as importantly, when overnight temperatures are above 70 degrees Fahrenheit cattle will have increased heat stress.
During extreme weather conditions with insufficient environmental cooling at night cattle will accumulate heat that they cannot disperse. Therefore, a temperature-humidity index (THI) alone may not predict cattle heat stress because it does not account for accumulated heat load.
Another short fall of THI is that it does not account for solar radiation and wind speed which can affect heat load of cattle.
During times of increased heat stress cattle should be observed closely to identify if additional strategies need to be implemented. Initially feed intake will drop off and cattle become restless. As heat stress increases cattle will begin to slobber and respiration rates will increase. Eventually, cattle will begin to group together. In severe heat stress cattle will be open mouth breathing with a labored effort.
- Actions to minimize heat stress
- In the summer months, cattle should be worked only early in the morning. Working and handling cattle will elevate their body temperature and cattle should not wait in processing areas longer than 30 minutes when it is hot. Do not work cattle in the evening, even if it has cooled off, it is not recommended. Cattle’s core temperature peaks 2 hours after peak environmental temperature. It also takes at least 6 hours for cattle to dissipate their heat load. Therefore, if peak temperature occurred at 4:00 pm cattle will not have recovered from that heat load until after 12:00 am and it will be later than that before cattle have fully recovered from the entire days heat load.
- Provide ample amounts of cool water. The water requirements of cattle increase during heat stress. Cattle lose water from increased respiration and perspiration. Additionally, consumption of water is the quickest method for cattle to reduce their core body temperature. Rule of thumb is that cattle need 3 inches of linear water space per head during the summer. Extra water tanks should be introduced prior to extreme heat events so that cattle become accustomed to them. Multiple cattle need to be able to drink at the same time. Waterers need to be kept clean and cool. Water intake actually decreases when water temperature exceeds 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Ideally water sources should not be exposed directly to the sun.
- Shade is critical, especially for black cattle. To be effective there needs to be 20 to 40 square feet of shade per animal. If using a mechanical shade structure, an east-west orientation will permit the ground under the shade will remain cooler. However, if mud is an issue then a north-south orientation will increase drying as the shade moves across the ground during the day. The height of the shade structure should be greater than 8 feet tall to allow sufficient air movement under the shade.
- Increasing the air flow can help cattle cope with extreme heat events. Wind speed has been shown to be associated with ability of cattle to regulate their heat load. Although we cannot influence wind speed we can ensure that there are no restrictions to air movement such as hay storage, tall vegetation or wind breaks.
- Control flies. Biting flies cause cattle to bunch up which decreases cooling. Minimizing breeding areas for flies and applying insecticides to decrease fly populations prior to heat stress is a valuable management practice.
6 Tips for navigating high feed costs
3. Dan Loy, Iowa Beef Center Director gives some advice for those looking to find a way to navigate high feed costs. Corn prices had already been increasing over the past year. Now with global grain production interrupted due to the war in Ukraine and growing conditions in South America, corn prices are reaching levels not seen since the drought of 2012.
And, corn prices tend to drive other feed prices as well. This cost crunch comes at a time when feedlot margins were improving. There are several strategies for navigating high feed costs. Below are just a few considerations. Look for updates from the Iowa Beef Center team as costs change in this highly volatile environment.
Re-evaluate feed cost and local opportunities. Corn is unlikely to be the lowest cost energy feed. When this happens, nutritionists need to be creative in managing rations. Luckily many byproduct and commodity feeds tend to lag corn prices so they are likely to be competitively priced sources of energy. Higher inclusions of distillers grains or corn gluten feed will likely be warranted. Also, look locally for feeds or byproducts. Examples could be grain screenings from the local co-op, or food byproducts. Our Feed Energy Index program was designed to help you evaluate potential options.
More time outside of feedlots. Depending on forage growing conditions, it may be more valuable for calves to spend more time as stocker or in backgrounding situations. Heavier feeder cattle might be coming to feedlots in greater numbers.
Backgrounding. If you have forage or cornstalks and access to coproducts, feeding a limited grain ration might be the low-cost solution.
Manage feed waste and shrink. Now is the time to really look at storage and feeding losses. As feeds become more expensive, saving a few percentage points in feed losses can quickly pay for a commodity shed. Also tightening up your feed bunk management can reduce feed waste and spoilage, especially in the summer.
Rethink market weights and timing. Cattle become less efficient when they get heavier. Carcass weights have continually increased for decades due to genetics, technology, fatter endpoints. Marketing cattle on a carcass basis also incentivizes higher weights due to the effect of carcass transfer. However, with high feed costs, marketing at slightly lighter weights should improve feed conversions and lower cost of gain.
Value of technology. When feed costs are high, technologies that improve feed conversion become much more valuable. Be sure to re-evaluate your implant program to make sure you are optimizing feed efficiency. Also, if you are not feeding a beta-agonist, now is a good time to reconsider.
Feed costs are not the only escalating cost in beef production. This might also be a good time to review your yardage charges.
Is grass-fed beef really better than regular beef?
4. Cattle grazing in rolling fields of green grass under blue skies with white puffy clouds. It's an idyllic image associated with grass-fed beef. In recent years, more companies have touted that their animals live happy lives, implying that their meat, eggs, milk, etc. taste better. (Think of the slogan: Happy cows come from California.) But, does that mean then that grass-fed beef is really better than regular, grain-fed beef?
First off, what is grass-fed beef, exactly? According to the United States Department of Agriculture, grass- or forage-fed meat refers to animals who eat grass and other forage for the entirety of their lives, except for the period before weaning, when they are fed milk. The USDA specifies that the animal's diet should consist only of grasses, forbs (such as legumes), browse, or cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state. These animals also cannot be fed grain or grain byproducts and must always be allowed access to a pasture during the growing season.
The N.C. Cooperative Extension says that most cows start their lives by being born on pasture and staying there until it is time to be weaned from their mothers. As the cattle matures, they are fed a diet of grains, like corn, soybeans, and wheat, in order to add to the amount of calories they are ingesting. Once grass-fed and traditionally raised cattle reach the desired weight (it takes longer for grass-fed cattle), they are sent to slaughter, according to NPR. So, how do these differences impact the quality of said beef?
When selecting meat for a recipe, we often first consider cut, freshness, and price. However, the way the animal was raised is also important for many consumers. Does the additional cost for grass-fed beef mean you are getting better meat than traditionally raised cattle? According to the Mayo Clinic, grass-feed beef could be better for heart health. Grass-fed beef may have lower fat content, more omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid, and more antioxidant vitamins, such as vitamin E, according to the health center.
When it comes to taste and appearance, N.C. Cooperative Extension reports that the fat marbling found in beef adds flavor and tenderness to the meat. Grain-feed beef, according to the site, generally has fat that is whiter in color and has more marbling, while the fat in grass-fed beef is usually more yellow and leaner, with less marbling. Because of their grain-based diet, traditionally raised cattle are typically given antibiotics to prevent health issues, such as liver abscesses (via NPR).
While there are some differences in taste and nutritional content between grass-fed and grain-fed beef, N.C. Cooperative Extension contends it's really a personal decision as to which one to choose, pointing out that all beef is high in protein, vitamins, and minerals such as iron, zinc, and B12.
Northern MN fencing effort may help rancher
5. They say good fences make good neighbors, and Wes Johnson is hoping more than 7 miles of good fence around his cattle ranch here will finally make good neighbors out of the booming local wolf population.
For the past 20 years or so, this is where wolves have been coming to die, more than any place else in Minnesota. They came to eat first, preying on some of Johnson’s newborn calves each spring. But then federal trappers came and killed the wolves — as many as 16 in a single year, three already this year, and 86 wolves trapped and killed in this wild patch of northwestern St. Louis County since 2002.
Johnson’s sprawling, 1,600-acre ranch with 450 head of cows and calves has been the poster child for the ongoing conflict between a charismatic endangered species and the rancher who tries to make a living raising cattle among them. It has seemed at times during the ongoing debate over wolves that the two factions couldn’t exist side-by-side.
Johnson and his family have tried flagging, motion-activated sound-blaring devices, hard-kicking donkeys and even daily horseback patrols to keep wolves at bay. They also bury any dead cattle quickly. Yet, every spring during calving season, more wolves came. And more calves died. Then more wolves died.
But if the fencing works and the wolves stay out, Johnson’s cattle ranch could become a showcase example of how seemingly polarized interests can coexist. Work started last summer and, so far, about 5 miles of the ranch’s 7.5 miles of perimeter have been fenced.
Early indications are that wolves are choosing not to cross. GPS-collared research wolves have been tracked moving up to the fence, walking down the fence line and then moving on. Trail cameras also show wolves staying out where the fence is up.
The final two miles or so of woven-wire fencing are going up this summer.
The fencing was the idea of Thomas Gable, the University of Minnesota researcher who heads the Voyageurs Wolf Project, an ongoing wolf research effort that has been uncovering the behavior of northern Minnesota wolves for the past seven years.
In recent years, as federal trappers worked to protect Johnson’s cows, more and more research wolves — including wolves wearing GPS collars as part of the Voyageurs Wolf Project — were being killed on the ranch. Some may have preyed on calves. Others did not. But if they got caught on the ranch after a calf had been killed, they were taken out.
Over the years 26 percent of all the GPS-collared wolves that have died during the Voyageurs Wolf Project research have died on Johnson’s ranch even though it comprises less than 1 percent of the study area. Some 9 percent of all the wolves estimated living within the study area have been trapped and killed at the ranch.
In what started as a tense meeting a few years ago, Johnson and federal trappers at first suggested that Gable move his research project. Gable said that was as impractical as Johnson moving his ranch. But Gable countered by suggesting they find a solution that would help all sides and end the perpetual cycle of wolves wandering on to the ranch, calves being killed and then wolves being killed by trappers.
The Johnson cattle ranch is at the boundary of several different wolf packs, and along a common route used by lone wolves, some sort of geographic quirk that keeps an endless supply of wolves nearby.
The entire project is expected to cost about $100,000, mostly for supplies thanks to the “donated” labor from the Voyageurs Wolf Project crew and Johnson’s own sweat equity.
Both 6-foot-high and 4-foot-high fencing is being used on the project. But Hart said previous research by his crews found 4-foot fencing is enough to keep wolves out.
To prevent that, the entire fence perimeter is also being lined with 2 feet of wire skirting, on the ground outside the fence, to keep wolves from digging their way onto the ranch.
Gable says he believes wolves will get used to the fence and get used to realizing they can’t get around it, then move on to hunting deer and beaver, their usual north woods meals.
Hart said a similar but much smaller fencing project around a sheep pasture near Effie, Minn., seems to have solved a problem where trappers had been called in nearly every year for two decades. Since the fence was installed in 2020, there hasn’t been a single wolf attack on a sheep. And no wolves have been trapped and killed.
Fencing “is not a prescription for every wolf problem out there. It’s not going to work if you have multiple (livestock) producers in one area because you just push the problem over to the next guy,” Hart said. “But this place is so isolated, it works here.”