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Hot cows

Cows stay cool in the shade of a half-mile-long feeding shed at the Mead Cattle Co. in August 2012. As many as several thousand Nebraska cattle have died statewide in 2013 as a result of high heat, humidity and calm winds.

A Nebraska Cattlemen official declined to talk numbers Thursday, but he compared the high feedlot cattle deaths that occurred in the state early last week to those of 2009.

A similar combination of heat, humidity and calm winds in June of that year pushed the death count as high as 4,000 in a casualty count by the Nebraska Farm Service Agency.

“It's probably safe to say it's as severe as it was four years ago,” said Pete McClymont, “which was 2009, which was the last year we had losses like this.”

The federal agency isn't counting this year because there is no livestock indemnity program available to partially compensate producers for losses.

The losses come at a time when beef prices are near historic highs. That means the loss of one 1,350-pound animal adds up to about $1,600. The loss of 4,000 would be in the range of $6.4 million.

McClymont alluded to “a fairly cool spring and early summer” leading up to July 9 this year. “And then there was a big jump in temperature, coupled with humidity, and then just a lack of wind.”

Individual feedlot operators did not respond to Journal Star efforts to pinpoint where big losses occurred. “The thing that's scary about this is that it's all across the board,” McClymont said.

Butler, Holt and Platte counties apparently were among the hardest hit, but the problem ranged as far west as Dawson County and the Lexington area.

“We started having members calling in, too,” McClymont said, “so one thing we've been respectful of with members is their personal losses. Some have talked in general terms. Some have not shared that at all.”

Feedlot cattle are more vulnerable to heat waves, especially early heat waves without air movement, because thousands of them typically are grouped in unshaded pens in plump condition.

Some feedlot operators use sprinklers to cool them down. But contingency measures sometimes backfire. Putting extra water tanks in the middle of pens, for example, can cause animals to cluster around the tanks and become victims of each other's body heat.

“If they can get by that first week,” McClymont said, “they get acclimated to it and then they can handle future (heat) events much easier.”

A livestock indemnity program with a retroactive feature is part of the versions of the farm bill passed in recent weeks in the House and Senate. But deep divisions among federal lawmakers on other parts of the bill make a compromise and a passage date highly uncertain.

Private insurance that would cover heat-related death loss isn't a practical option for many producers, McClymont said, because the risk pool is small and premiums are high.

“If you have losses,” he said, “you can see your equities just vanish in a period of hours.”

Feedlot operators can use futures contracts and options to protect themselves against price risk. “This is an altogether different, severe case to manage. And there are just not too many tools out there to help producers have good risk protection against Mother Nature.”

Disposing of dead animals is another challenge.

“If renderers can't keep up and temperatures are significant, a very good option for producers is to follow Department of Environmental Quality parameters and bury them,” McClymont said.

A copy of guidelines provided by the state agency listed burial, composting and incineration as acceptable choices.

The guidelines for burial call for at least 4 feet of compacted soil to cover carcasses and 5 feet of separation between carcasses and groundwater.

“In most circumstances,” the DEQ disposal directive said, “incineration is a difficult disposal method to employ quickly with large numbers of livestock carcasses.”

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Reach Art Hovey at 402-473-7223 or ahovey@journalstar.com.

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