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Extreme Weather Prep: How To Help Your Cowherd Weather A Natural DisasterExtreme Weather Prep: How To Help Your Cowherd Weather A Natural Disaster

Veterinarians, cattlemen and extension experts on the front lines of natural disasters share common experiences and techniques that helped cattle weather storms.

February 20, 2014

11 Min Read
Extreme Weather Prep: How To Help Your Cowherd Weather A Natural Disaster

No matter where storms or fires hit, the livestock industry approaches recovery with the same spirit and generosity. Neighbors helped each other rebuild fences and herds whether it was after a wildfire in Colorado or a once-in-a-lifetime blizzard in South Dakota.

It comes as no surprise the country’s cattle exhibit the same hardiness. In many cases, surviving livestock quickly got back on track to perform with their peers. Veterinarians, cattlemen and extension experts on the front lines of natural disasters share common experiences and techniques that helped cattle weather storms.

Expect Respiratory Disease

A common theme among cattle surviving natural disasters of any kind is a compromised immune system. The stress of the storm, and time without consistent food or water, is stressful and can leave animals vulnerable to disease.

In South Dakota, cattle were battling respiratory disease for four weeks after the early October blizzard that dropped up to four feet of snow on some parts of
the state.

“We had reports of an increase in respiratory disease, especially in calves that went through the blizzard,” says Russ Daly, DVM, MS, DACVPM, extension veterinarian and associate professor for South Dakota State University. “This storm was unusual in that we had calves involved that were out on pasture.”

Typically, the state’s calves are weaned and sold long before the first major winter storm. The blizzard, called Atlas, was an early- season storm preceded by 48 hours of rain. The already wet cattle then experienced a quick temperature drop along with snow and wind.

Even with this unique storm and its devastating losses, surviving cattle reacted as they would to other stressors, Dr. Daly says.

“Cattle are pretty resilient,” he says. “It’s not going to be very unlike the normal stresses that calves would go through in a transportation or weaning stress. In the weeks afterward, there’s an uptick in respiratory disease. Cattle that are raised out there are from hardy stock. They are used to being in the elements. We didn’t see every animal affected.”

Scott Cammack, DVM, at Northern Hills Veterinary in Sturgis, S.D., says his producers treated all surviving cattle with antibiotics right after the storm. Most respiratory issues were in the calves. In addition, antibiotics helped treat lacerations cattle acquired from drifting through fences.

Immediate treatment helped get calves—and gains—back on track, Dr. Cammack says.


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“My folks have a ranch, and we sold our steer calves three weeks after the storm,” he says. “They weighed more than they ever weighed. We tried to be proactive, we treated the herds that were hurt the worst. We were trying to be there and get the right things in people’s hands. At this point, I think everything that’s alive is doing well.”

Winter storms are common for northern cattlemen and veterinarians. However, no one could have prepared for this blizzard.

None of us have experienced anything like what we went through that first weekend,” Dr. Daly says. “Being a former practitioner, I’ve seen some really bad winters. Even then, we had some breaks to get animals taken care of and fed.”

Breeding Herds

During Atlas, many cows were within the first three months of gestation. However, a majority of herds hadn’t yet done pregnancy checks prior to the storm. Without knowing if cattle were open or bred, it’s impossible to attribute pregnancy losses solely to the storm.

“From what we know about reproductive physiology—even with a storm of that magnitude—it’s hard to give a cow enough stress to terminate the pregnancy, especially when it was established for two to three months,” Dr. Daly says. “Some cows that were under extreme stress, however, did abort their calves.”

Effects of nutritional stress during gestation can only be determined after the next crop. For bulls, Dr. Daly recommends performing breeding soundness exams on any animals that survived the storm before the next breeding season even though the Atlas blizzard didn’t have prolonged low temperatures and wind chills that would cause scrotal frostbite.

Dr. Cammack says most of his clients are concerned with the quantity of cows left to breed. Some producers lost two thirds of their stock. However, most pregnancy rates have been normal during pregnancy checks, which is the first step to getting herd numbers up.

“People had to cull pretty heavily the year before. The cows we had left were the best cows,” he says. “The preg rates have been really good considering. A herd the other day had 100 percent bred in a herd. Nowhere has had more than 10 percent open, which is a normal rate for those herds that cull on openness.”

Pregnancy losses may have been more severe if the storm had been a month earlier, notes Adele Harty, MS, cow-calf field specialist at the Rapid City (SD) Regional Extension Center.

“If they were greater than 60 days bred, this storm should not cause them to abort,” Harty says. “I’ve talked to some producers whose preg rates were lower than expected of what we’d like, but we’re not sure if it’s attributed to the storm or other factors prior to the storm. That’s the challenge: It wasn’t just the storm, we’ve had ongoing drought conditions and feed issues in the years prior to the storm.”

Management Response

Animal identification is a major concern immediately following a natural disaster, says Cara L. Huston, DVM, Ph.D., associate professor of epidemiology and beef extension outreach coordinator at Mississippi State University. Dr. Huston worked with livestock after Hurricane Charley in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 in addition to other disease outbreaks and natural disasters.

“The immediate need, especially after hurricanes and floods, is to identify animals so they can be confined for their safety and the safety of the public. Fortunately, with cattle, versus horses or small animals, they will often seek out high ground,” Dr. Huston says. “If you register with your state prior to a disaster through an animal or premise identification program, that gives your animal health officials a tool to check in on your cattle.”

Depending on the weather conditions, the immediate health concerns are respiratory disease, foot problems such as foot rot, lacerations and mastitis. After a hurricane or floods, Dr. Huston notes that additional health challenges may include salt toxicity and water deprivation.

“With cattle on the delta or on salt-water infested pastures, getting fresh water was an issue because of salt toxicity,” she notes. “Having communication with volunteers and first responders is critical because they need to know how to manage the animals. Giving them an improper type or amount of food and water can sometimes do more harm than good.”

After cattle are identified and returned to normal feeding schedules, producers may want to vaccinate or wean animals. However, postponing such additional stressors may be the best route. Following Atlas in South Dakota, many veterinarians recommended postponing management procedures for several weeks.

“When we have a stress like that, cortisol levels are really high,” Dr. Daly notes. “This leads to more incidence of respiratory disease. We wanted to give those animals a chance to get their feet back under themselves and get out to a steady state. A few operations where they were looking to sell cattle about that time kept animals on the farm to get them built back up.”

In the case of the Atlas blizzard, livestock were without food or water for a few days. Rapid resumption of eating and drinking contributed to tetany and bloat in the days immediately following the storm.

“Right afterwards, there were some reports of some grass tetany,” Dr. Daly says. “While it definitely wasn’t life threatening, it was something to watch for.”

Extra vigilance helped keep losses after the blizzard low, notes Stephanie Stevens, DVM, Cheyenne River Animal Hospital in Edgemont, SD. In addition, revaccinating cattle that showed early signs of disease helped catch problems early.

“We let them settle down and then vaccinated,” Dr. Stevens recalls. “If they were sick, they were treated. After a stress like that, we expected an outbreak to occur seven to ten days afterwards.”

More than a dozen of Dr. Stevens’ clients were severely affected by the storm. Surviving cattle in the area drifted as far as 20 miles by the time they were found, she says. The calves that survived were set back a few weeks initially. However, shipping weights have been heavier than the previous few years.

Even with her experience dealing with typical winter storms, no veterinarian or producer in the area could have prepared for Atlas. Dr. Stevens relied on a network of resources to help get information to her clients.

“Our state animal industry board has been a good source of information,” she says. “Another source I reference frequently is the American Association of Bovine Practitioners Listserv. We also dealt with our state diagnostic lab.”

Networks of veterinary resources can be crucial in emergencies, especially in situations where extra veterinary support may be needed. Begin calling in additional veterinarians to assist as soon as possible, recommends MJ Fisher, Colorado State University Extension Pueblo County Director.

Following the March 2012 Heartstrong wildfire in northeastern Colorado, Fisher noted Yuma County had a shortage of veterinarians at the time. In addition, it was his first experience with a loss of property on that scale.

“Our vets worked day and night,” Fisher says. “Vets were busy trying to do C-sections, and I would say that we got lucky in that there were not as many burned as you might expect. We met with producers individually and in groups to talk about what they could do for their rangeland and to help get people connected to rebuild fences. We had hundreds of miles of fences lost.”

Sharing Knowledge

In a fire, Fisher recommends assessing cattle for burns to their hooves and legs as secondary infections can cause lameness and result in euthanasia.

Connecting with the extension network allowed Fisher to learn from previous fires in Texas. Some cattle not in the wildfire area, but that were in the plume of smoke, were more aggressively marketed and monitored to avoid treatment for respiratory infections.

“It was difficult to stay connected, but every time I got to a computer I was able to get answers to questions,” he says. “I can’t say enough for the help the folks in Texas provided.”

Thanks to the advice from Texas, Fisher says he was able to recommend veterinarians watch for burned udders that could result in mastitis.

Similarly, professionals advised South Dakota cattlemen as the state recovered from losses after the blizzard. While South Dakota is experienced with winter storms, the state received advice from experts in Louisiana and Mississippi experienced in addressing large scale livestock losses from hurricanes.

“The immediate issues of the storm afterwards were the carcass clean up and some of the health risks that may or may not have been present,” Dr. Daly says. “We reached out to Louisiana and Mississippi, who have been through hurricanes. We have a good network of extension
veterinarians working in the same areas.”

Preparing a network of extension agents, state health officials and sister farms is the most important step towards disaster readiness, Dr. Huston says.

“The single most important thing livestock producers can do is communicate,” she recommends. “Knowing who the emergency managers are, who the extension agent is—make contact with them before an event so you know each other.”

A network that can be engaged during a disaster will help ensure lost or injured cattle are cared for appropriately. Dr. Huston notes that leaving the care of livestock up to untrained groups can result in animals being given unapproved medications or ineffective treatments.

Veterinarians can volunteer with their county to be a part of its emergency plan, which can include natural disasters or an isolated incident such as an overturned trailer.

“All disasters happen locally,” she says. “Every state is going to have some type of animal emergency plan. Veterinarians can be involved with their county and do large animal emergency response training where they work alongside their local firefighters and first responders.”

Preparing for a Disaster

Be a resource for clients before an emergency occurs.

Consider common types of disaster situations the region experienced in the past and help your clients plan ahead. State government, universities and associations are resources for specific preparation information.

  • Understand your state and local emergency plans.

  • Let your clients know who to contact.

  • Provide tips for animal safety, such as remove halters and avoid releasing animals.

  • Direct volunteers and donations to a central state or community resource.

More resources for you:

Why Client Success Is The Best Way To Grow Your Beef Veterinarian Business

It's Not Voodoo! Veterinary Acupuncture Can Be A Helpful Tool For Beef Producers

Breathtaking Photos Of Winter On The Ranch

BEEF Vet: Tips To Create Engaged Employees For Ranch Success

Photo Gallery: Meet The Multiple Generations On The Ranch


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