Heat threatens crops, livestock

A heat wave engulfing Kansas for the next few days is threatening cattle in the state's feedlots while further stressing farm crops and rangeland already struggling with drought.

Feedlot owners and cattle producers are preparing to cope with triple-digit temperatures.

"High temperature, high humidity, low wind speed — those are the three things that really create problems for cattle in confinement," said Todd Domer, spokesman for the Kansas Livestock Association.

In the northeastern town of Muscotah, feedlot owner Terry Handke said the heat index for livestock is expected to reach emergency levels today and into the weekend. He lost 30 cattle the last time a major heat wave hit a couple of years ago.

"We've learned things the hard way," he said.

He hopes preparations will help him avoid cattle deaths.

Handke's feedlot has prepared for the heat by scraping all manure away down to dry ground, so that workers can wet the cattle down to lower the temperature in pens. Some of his pens have sprinklers, and for the others he has a large water tank with a nozzle so workers can shoot water into the pen. That can help lower temperatures as much as 20 degrees.

"The cattle, after you have done that a few times, they just about meet you at the gate because they know it will be cooler there," Handke said.

He also plans to cut back their feed in the morning, instead feeding the bulk of their daily rations in late afternoon so cattle can digest their food during the cooler evening.

High temperatures combined with high humidity create dangerous conditions for livestock. Temperatures of 90 degrees, for example, are no problem until the humidity reaches 60 percent, he said. But temperatures of 100 degrees and humidity levels of just 30 percent create extreme heat stress for cattle.

On Wednesday, the humidity level at the feedlot was already 55 percent with temperatures expected to top triple digits in the coming days.

High humidity at feedlots in northeast Kansas creates more heat stress in cattle there than those in feedlots in western Kansas, where humidity levels are lower, Handke said.

At Pratt Feeders in western Kansas, general manager Jerry Bohn has put fewer cattle in pens, allowing better air flow. Workers also make sure cattle have adequate water. The animals are not handled during the hottest part of the day.

"Anytime you have extremely high temperatures, you are concerned," Bohn said. "As long as we have winds, that lessens our concerns."

Rancher Ken Grecian already had culled his cattle herd this spring by 10 to 15 percent at a cattle operation just north of Hays because of the drought. He said he knew the grass wouldn't support all his animals, but hoped that by reducing the number he would have enough grass to carry them through the growing season. Each day he hauls 1,500 gallons of water out to the livestock.

"My biggest concern with the heat and wind is the fact we are already dry and our pastures need rain," Grecian said. "Our grass is less than half the growth we would normally expect due to the dry weather. I am concerned we are going to be running out of grass if we don't have precipitation out here in the next week or so."

Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service reported Monday that 34 percent of the state's rangeland was in poor to very poor condition. Stock water supplies were short to very short in 23 percent of the state as stock ponds dry up.

Meanwhile, Kansas growers expect the heat wave to cause some yield losses to spring-planted crops.

"You can go out on any cornfield in the state and see leaves rolling up because of heat stress — and it is only going to get worse," said Jere White, executive director of the Kansas Corn Growers Association.

Some of the early planted corn may soon be in the critical stage of pollination where even a few days of extreme heat can have consequences for the entire crop, White said.

It is unclear just how much of the state's corn crop is at that critical stage. The Agricultural Statistics Service reported Monday that only 4 percent of the crop had silked, primarily in southeast Kansas.

But White said those figures are likely already outdated.