WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — At least 2,000 head of cattle died during the heat in southwest Kansas last weekend.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment confirms the loss and the cause of death.

“The combination of high temperatures, humidity and not a lot of wind made it difficult for the cows to stay cool,” Matt Lara, KDHE communications director, said.

The KSN Storm Track 3 Weather team said the high temperature was 102 degrees in and around Garden City and Dodge City on Saturday and Sunday. The mornings were humid, and the wind speed ranged from 7.2 to 11.8 mph.

Lara said that the KDHE became involved when facility owners contacted the agency to assist with the disposal of the carcasses.

He said cattle deaths from heat are normal, but this many is higher than usual.

A.J. Tarpoff, a beef veterinarian with Kansas State University Research and Extension, said cattle will often acclimate to hot temperatures, but factors like humidity, diet, and even the color of their hide, can drastically change their ability to handle the heat.

“Each animal within a group or pen is not affected the same way,” he said. “Animals with higher body condition scores, or with darker hides, or finisher steers and heifers that are getting ready to go to harvest are at higher risk of heat stress.”

Tarpoff said ranchers and feedlot operators can do things to help cattle survive the heat.

“This all has to do with heat load,” he said. “The internal temperature of cattle will peak two hours after the hottest point of the day. So our strategy for keeping cows cool needs to be built around knowing that.”

He said cattle also produce heat about four to six hours after eating.

“So if we feed animals within the wrong period of time, we can actually increase their heat load because the heat of digestion and the heat from the environment are building on top of each other,” Tarpoff said. “We want to keep that from happening.”

Best management practices to reduce heat stress:

  • Handling. Receive, ship or move cattle only during the coolest parts of the day, preferably before 10 a.m.
  • Feeding. Modify feeding times. Feed 70% of the animals’ ration as late in the evening as possible, which puts the peak heat of digestion overnight when temperatures are likely cooler. Decrease feeding during the day.
  • Managing heat.
    • Split cattle between pens or reduce stocking density.
    • Maximize airflow by removing obstructions around facilities, including weeds.
    • If feasible, install shade structures to reduce the temperature on the pen’s floor. Due to solar radiation, a dirt floor can get up to 140 degrees.
    • If you cannot provide shade, put dry bedding over the dirt. Straw can reduce the heat of the pen floor by about 25 degrees.
    • Install sprinklers to wet cattle down at night or early morning so as not to increase humidity.
  • Providing water. Tarpoff said that cattle will drink about double the amount of water when the temperature goes from 70 to 90 degrees. He said cattle should get about five times as much water as the dry food they eat.

“Cool, clean and readily-available water is critical during heat stress events,” Tarpoff said. “We may have to increase the water tank capacity within a pen to meet these needs with portable water troughs. Producers need to be prepared for that.”

Tarpoff said he follows two sources for help in making a decision when to put a heat stress management plan into full effect.

  • The U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) maintains a seven-day forecast tool for the United States, taking into account temperature, humidity and solar radiation.
  • The Kansas Mesonet at Kansas State University is a network of observation towers across the state that updates climate information every hour.

Tarpoff said heat stress accounts for about $370 million in losses yearly for the beef cattle industry.

For more information or assistance, contact your local extension agent.