Unfavorable weather stresses livestock, their producers
Low humidity, cool nights, cool breezes off the mountains and other aspects of the climate on the high plains of northeastern Colorado make the region one of the best in which to raise livestock – normally.
But the spring and summer of 2012 have been anything but normal, and the ongoing atypical conditions, consisting of record-high temperatures and record-low precipitation in the area all year, are likely to have an economic impact on local ranchers, livestock-feeders and dairymen – in addition to the farmers who don’t have enough water to grow their crops.
At the mercy of a climate that typically shines kindly on them, livestock producers in Weld County – where the value of all livestock and their products far exceeds $1 billion annually, ranking No. 3 in the nation – are now left hoping the weather changes soon. Animals eat less when they’re heat-stressed, and if a recent five-day stretch of 100-degree high temperatures wasn’t enough to stress them out, a continuation of such weather could be.
Eating less means the animals put on weight slower – forcing ranchers to sell some of their livestock to feedyards under ideal weights, which brings in less money. If animals continue eating small amounts when they’re in the feedyards, the burden is passed on to those operations, who – already facing tight profit margins due to high feed costs – are trying to beef up the animals to sell to packing plants to get more animals in their lots.
Even if cows decide they want to eat in the heat, there’s not much grass left out in the pastures to munch on, and with local crops now struggling to grow with limited or no water, feed is expected to be in short supply. Supplementing the animals’ diets with hay and grains is pricey and only going to get pricier.
Because of those issues, Nunn-area rancher Ray Peterson said he’s now considering auctioning off his beef cattle to feedyards as early as this week, selling them at just about 400 pounds, maybe even less.
He typically doesn’t sell his cattle until the fall, when they’re weighing in at 650-700 pounds.
“It would just be really nice if would cool off and rain, just a little bit,” said Peterson, who serves on the board of directors for the Weld County Livestock Association.
Additionally, dairy cows produce less milk when they’re heat-stressed. The only silver lining in less milk production, according to Colorado State University Extension dairy specialist Bill Wailes, is the tightened supply is expected to help improve milk prices that hit a two-year low of $15.51 per hundredweight in May.
Wailes said that because of the heat and the expected reduction in milking, he’s expecting July milk prices to reach the $16-range, maybe even hit $17.
“But it will probably all be a wash,” Wailes said. “Dairymen might be getting more money for the milk they produce, but they’ll have less of it to sell.”
Where it could start negatively impacting dairymen’s pocketbooks is taking measures to mitigate their cows’ stress if the heat continues.
Case DeVries with Monte Vista Dairy near Gill said their dairy – designed by Temple Grandin, the well-known professor of animal science at Colorado State University and best-selling author – is already set up to make walking distances to the milking parlor short and flat to reduce day-to-day stress on the cows.
But those and other stress-reducing features might not be enough if the heat continues, he added.
DeVries said they might have to look at using “soaking” systems to cool the cows if the relentless heat doesn’t stop – but water to do so isn’t cheap, or abundant this year, he noted.
Others have spent good chunks of money to help cattle stay comfortable. At JBS USA’s Five Rivers Kuner Feedlot near Kersey, the company spent about $500,000 two years ago to install feedyard panels, which serve as windbreaks in the winter and then as shade in the summer heat – though it’s still in question how much the panels help.
Peterson said trying to mitigate the effects of the heat leaves him hauling water often to the parched pastures where his thirsty cows lay.
“Just looking at how brown our pastures are, you’d think it was the middle of winter,” said Peterson. “It’s all pretty tough on the animals … and it has an impact on us, too.”
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