Cold temperatures take toll on cattle herds

Blair Emerson
Bismarck Tribune

MANDAN, N.D. — Fred Berger doesn’t like to talk about the weather.

Over the past month, temperatures for the Mandan cattle rancher have dropped to the single digits, down to well below zero with the wind chills. The cold snap has cost Berger more money in feed and extra bedding for his 700-some cows.

And with calving season just around the corner, Berger said the cold could start to become a real issue.

“If you talk about all this stuff, it’s going to weigh on you,” said Berger, of Berger Cattle Co. “That’s basically the life of a farmer and a rancher, is optimism. Because there’s stress at all different times (of the year).”

Beth Budoloski, an NDSU Extension agent for agriculture and natural resources, said the prolonged cold weather has “been hitting cow herds pretty hard.”

“(Cold weather) can really challenge livestock. They can handle two or three days of subzero temperatures; they do grow a longer, thicker coat that adds insulation,” said Budoloski, who works in Burleigh County. But longer than a few days can be difficult for not only cattle but also ranchers, she said.

“Some people, they get work and school off for weather as extreme as it has been, but for ranchers it’s kind of business as usual,” Budoloski said.

Berger owns two ranches: one 25 miles south of Mandan and another 20 miles northwest. On top of the cold, with roughly 700 pregnant cows, Berger said his cattle are eating about twice as much as they normally do.

The cows eat more to keep warm, because they burn a lot more calories when it’s cold outside, he said, adding that this is costing him tens of thousands of dollars more a month.

In addition, Berger has had to purchase more straw bedding to keep his cattle warm. He also operates a livestock brokerage business, and he said it has cost more to transport cattle because the trucks burn more fuel in cold weather.

Road closures also can be burdensome, too. Earlier in February when portions of Interstate 94 were closed in eastern North Dakota, one of Berger’s truckers had to pull into Jamestown, where he managed to find a livestock auction and unload the cattle there. It took a day and a half for them to get back on the road.

“It’s not normal to have that many (cold) days in a row,” Berger said. “There’s nothing you can do. That’s the trouble. It’s just every week it costs you.”

Daryl Ritchison, interim director of the North Dakota Agricultural Weather Network, said most parts of North Dakota haven’t been above freezing in more than 40 days.

Current temperatures in the teens below zero are well below average for this time of year, he said. For south central North Dakota, the average high temperature in February is 30 degrees.

And potential late season blizzards could “add to the stress and struggles” for livestock producers, Ritchison said, especially as those producers typically start calving in March and April.

“I don’t see much of a change (in temperatures) until March 10,” Ritchison said.

Budoloski said ranchers are doing the best they can to keep their herds safe and healthy. Some are ensuring their cattle are protected from the wind by setting up windbreaks, often in the form of trees, barns and hay bales.

She said it’s also important ranchers have adequate amounts of dry bedding, which makes a difference in helping cattle withstand cold stress, which is when the animal’s body temperature drops below the lower critical temperature.

Some local ranchers also are facing frozen water systems, but Busoloski said it’s vital cattle have access to water.

“It the waters are frozen, they either won’t eat feed as much, or they won’t eat at all,” she said.

Also, she said it’s important to feed cattle more in cold temperatures so they don’t lose weight. This is particularly important for cows that are preparing to calve. Cows that lose weight may have issues with birthing or birth weaker calves, and there could be higher calf mortality, she said.

Budoloski said she isn’t personally aware of an increase in cattle deaths due to the continuous cold weather, but cattle producers may be eligible for the Livestock Indemnity Program, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency.

Producers may qualify for funding through the program for livestock deaths in excess of normal mortality caused by “eligible loss conditions,” according to the FSA website. This includes an adverse weather event, meaning extreme or abnormal damaging weather not expected to occur.

Brad Olson, farm program director in the conservation division of North Dakota FSA, said his office hasn’t received any calls about an influx in cattle death as a result of the cold snap. But if a producer would like to apply for benefits under the Livestock Indemnity Program, they must notify their county FSA offices up to 30 days after the death.

The deadline to apply for funding, however, isn’t until March 1, 2020. Producers have until March 1 to apply for 2018 losses.

The recent cold stretch has been unusual and has driven up feed costs for area ranchers as calving season nears, according to Fred Berger, who estimates a pregnant cow eats considerably more in the cold weather of recent weeks.
For producers, the recent prolonged cold weather has required a larger amount of feed available for cattle herds. Above, cattle are gathered at Kist Livestock earlier in February.