Last week's loss of thousands of fat cattle in Kansas feedlots is being described as a "heart-wrenching natural disaster" by eyewitness Nels Lindberg.
Lindberg is a veterinarian who works with multiple feedlots in the Ulysses area. He spoke with DTN to share what he saw and to describe steps feeders took leading up to the deaths. He is a partner in Production Animal Consultation (PAC), an independent group helping to oversee 1.4 million head of cattle on feed in the U.S.
Lindberg and another partner in the PAC group were called on to help at multiple Kansas feed yards during the emergency. DTN reported on the event June 14, alerting the industry to massive losses in what at that time was thought to be a heat-stress event. That story can be found here: https://www.dtnpf.com/….
Lindberg, who verified the cattle deaths were due to a heat-stress emergency, told DTN, "These feed yards prepare for adverse events every day. This particular event happened abruptly. This was not a case where feedlot managers were sitting around doing nothing. We had a forecast that told us this was coming. We had maps that predicted a heat stress event. We followed mitigation strategies, including more bedding, more water tanks and rations adjustments."
The problem wasn't a lack of preparation, the veterinarian emphasized. "The fact is this was a natural disaster," he said. "Things were so extreme that regardless of the plans we put into place, regardless of doing all we could do to mitigate conditions, we couldn't keep up. It's like asking why didn't they do something to keep New Orleans from flooding. Sometimes there's just nothing you can do."
Lindberg went on to say that 99% of the time, the steps they took in the days leading up to the cattle deaths would have helped. This was a case, however, that fell into the 1%, where what normally works didn't.
He added, unequivocally, "There was no conspiracy or foul play at work here. There was no disease, no virus, no poison. This was simply a natural disaster."
HUMID, HOT WEATHER AND FAT CATTLE
The veterinarian told DTN that when a heat stress event hits, those animals most greatly affected are the ones toward the end of the finishing period. For three days, temperatures were in the triple digits, with nighttime humidity and little to no wind.
"These cattle were big, fat, ready to go to harvest, and for the most part, they were black-hided," he said. He estimated weights for animals at that phase typically between 1,250 and 1,500 pounds each.
DTN Ag Meteorologist John Baranick looked at the data tied to those three days of heat around the Ulysses area where the cattle died. He noted that dew points started to break into the higher 60s and hold there through the night, beginning Saturday.
A dew point is the temperature air has to be cooled to to reach a relative humidity of 100%. In general, dew points in the 50s during the summer months are comfortable. Once dew points hit 60 and above, they are considered to be extremely muggy and humid. The air temperature can never go below the dew point.
"Normally, we don't see dew points that high without it being windy as well," Baranick added. "Usually, this part of the country sees the heat, but the lower dew points allow cattle to cool overnight. When this event took place, the higher dew points did not allow for that cooling. Also, we weren't seeing the winds we typically would under the conditions we had."
By Monday, reports were beginning to surface of massive losses in the area's feedlots. Lindberg said that for that three-day period, "the weather literally devastated our industry."
"We care for these cattle every day. We do all within our power to keep them healthy. Sometimes an extreme weather event comes along, and it hurts our ability to care for them, but no one cares more about the health and well-being of these animals than we do."
Asked if he had a final tally of the losses, Lindberg said he did not. He does not believe the number was greater than 6,000 or 7,000 head but added that it was impossible to know because multiple feedlots were involved, and his company did not consult on all of them.
HANDLING THE AFTERMATH
When a massive mortality event like this takes place in the feed yard industry, disposal becomes a critical issue.
Lindberg explained that rendering companies are paid to come to feed yards every day and pick up dead animals. That company renders them into useful products. When there is an extreme event, and death losses exceed what is normal, this is still the protocol.
"The rendering companies add more trucks and staff to handle the extra animals," said Lindberg. "In addition, in Kansas, we have the KDHE (Kansas Department of Health and Environment), which has emergency plans and protocols in place to help with emergency burial operations."
BIG LOSS A SMALL PERCENTAGE
DTN Livestock Analyst ShayLe Stewart said that putting the heat-stress losses at 10,000 head as an estimate, it's important to soberly consider how that might affect the U.S. food supply.
"We process 600,000 head of cattle in this country in a week. If we lost 10,000 head in this heat-stress event, as awful as that is, it was 1.6% of the total supply over one week. I'm not belittling the loss of life, because we never want to see animals suffer. But from a production standpoint, this is not a big drop in our overall fat-cattle supply, and it's not going to affect our food supply."
PAYING FOR THE LOSS
How will feedlot operations pay for losses like these?
Lee Gleason, vice president of sales for ProValue Insurance, is a long-time agribusiness and farm insurance specialist. He is based in the Hutchinson, Kansas, area, and told DTN his company writes several feed yards in the state.
"From a private insurance perspective, there is no product out there to protect from this," he said of the heat-stress deaths. "Livestock mortality is tough. I've done some checking around other markets, and to my knowledge, no one will touch this."
Gleason said that in this most recent loss event, feeders were already dealing with all-time high prices for gains. He said at the phase the animals were in, the majority probably died with 3 to 4 months of feed bills already invested in them.
"If we estimate each animal at a value of roughly $1,600, we are looking at a really big number with these losses," he said.
As for coverage outside of private commercial carriers, USDA's Livestock Indemnification Program (LIP) may help with some of the losses, depending on eligibility of the individual or entity owning the cattle, and whether or not the losses occurred in an extreme heat scenario, as established by the rules of the LIP.
Mostly, this means that if the animals that died in the feed yards were on retained ownership, those owners may be eligible for some compensation if all the criteria for the loss are met. Feed yards themselves, in general, are likely not going to be eligible. That explanation was verified by a public source, who works to help administer the LIP.
The LIP rules state it only compensates eligible livestock owners for eligible death losses in excess of what it considers "normal mortality" as a direct result of an eligible loss condition.
In the case of heat-related losses, the temperature humidity index (THI) is used to gauge eligibility. If losses are determined eligible, they are covered at no more than 75% of average fair market value. The LIP program is administered through the Farm Service Agency. A notice of loss must be filed within 30 days.
Victoria Myers can be reached at email@example.com
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