Local vet estimates area cattle losses from blizzard to be 4,000 head

March 27, 2019 GMT

SCOTTSBLUFF — When Winter Storm Atlas hit Dawes and Sioux Counties in October 2013, the Omaha World Herald reported that representatives of the University of Nebraska Extension estimated that the storm killed as many as 2,200 head of cattle in the Northern Panhandle. While cattle deaths in the Panhandle continue to be calculated, a local veterinarian has estimated that the recent mid-March bomb cyclone and subsequent blizzard, which brought 10 inches of snow, preceded by 50 mph winds and freezing rain, resulted in the deaths of 4,000 cattle in the area.

Losses mounting

“I’ve seen one cow/calf locations where there were 40 dead calves at one location,” Dr. Travis Van Anne, a veterinarian with Animal Health Center in Scottsbluff ,said Tuesday. “I’ve been told that at one feedlot location there were several hundred dead, but what I’ve seen personally is 50 dead at one location. Per feedlot, to show up and see 50 dead, fat cattle — that’s a lot.”

FSA has set the baseline normal mortality rate for calves at 5 percent, but Van Anne said it depends on when cows calved. Prior to the storm, he estimated that 3 to 4 percent of calves were lost due to cold weather, along with one percent of cows. But mortality rates rose higher during the storm.

“If they were hot and heavy and right in the middle of calving when the blizzard hit, then my estimation would be closer to 10 percent losses,” he said. “Some of the cattle that weren’t ready to calve sloughed their babies and calved prematurely from the stress of the storm.”

Van Anne said some producers had 2- or 3-week-old calves die because the calves lacked the strength to pull themselves out from snowbanks, where they essentially asphyxiated on the snow as it drifted around them. In the feedlots, many cattle died from drowning on mud, Van Anne said.

“I know it sounds crazy, but those cattle would get their head down in the mud and the water,” he said. “They were getting pushed down in the mud and the water. They couldn’t get their heads up and they drowned.

“The thing that amazes me is the number of mother cows that died,” Van Anne said.

In pastures and fields with creeks or running water, cows were pelted by freezing rain and pushed into waterways where they eventually drowned.

“Those cows didn’t know they were getting pushed into that water,” he said. “They thought they were getting to a safe spot, but they made it down into the bottom of those creeks, some of which were five foot deep.”

Once stuck in the creek, the mud had sealed many cows fates.

“A lot of animals drowned in creeks or waterways, they simply couldn’t get out of the running water,” he said. “There are piles of dead cows, which surprises me, but a lot of it was waterway related.”

Problems for calves

As individual producers dig out they will continue to find more dead cattle, but Van Anne said the lingering effects of the storm will start to surface in about 100 to 140 days of age.

“The baby calves that didn’t get colostrum is a big deal,” he said. “Guys who went out and picked up calves to warm them up, or calves that didn’t get mothered during the storm are going to notice health issues later on due to lack of colostrum.”

Van Anne advises that producers work and brand calves early, even if they’re only 30 days old. For one, this gives producers an opportunity to take an inventory of their cattle, and to get a 5-way vaccine modified live vaccine into their calves as soon as possible. He also recommends a second booster dose be administered to calves by four months of age.

“Summer pneumonias typically occur around that four months of age time,” he said. “If (producers) can do that, they may offset a lot of the problems that would be occurring later on without the two doses of vaccine.”

During the inventory, Van Anne said that calves who have big joints or swollen umbilicus show clear signs of problems, and producers should identify those and visit with their local vet about what treatments are available.

Breeding difficulties and body conditions

Since breeding season is not far away, Van Anne said producers should also have a local veterinarian semen test their bulls to ensure there are no issues. He also recommends that producers supplement their cattle diets and pay close attention to their nutritional demands to put them back in good condition.

“The cows will need some extra groceries,” he said. “Thin cows don’t breed as well as cows in good condition. Walking around in this mud has caused them to lose weight rather than maintaining or gaining weight.”

Van Anne said cows with a Body Condition Score (BCS) of 6 have a much better chance of being bred than a cow with a BCS of 4.

“The mud is going to make these cows thinner,” he said. “They’re also going to get milked down. The calves are nursing in excess and the cows will get skinny.”

A lack of early grass has also lead to poorer body conditions.

“People give downy brome (cheatgrass) a bad name,” he said. “But cheatgrass is a good deal for western Nebraska where we only get 14 or 15 inches of rain a year.”

Cheatgrass is a cool season grass that grows in January and again in March and April, Van Anne said. It provides a decent forage value for cattle before it goes to seed and hurts a cow’s mouth.

“It’s been too cold for the cheat grass to grow, and that has actually contributed to the loss in condition to these cows because we don’t have cheat grass for them to eat right now.

Yield grades and late shipment

In western Nebraska, cattle are sold live rather than on a grid, like in Texas or Kansas, Van Anne said. In those states, animals are already sold and sent to a feedlot on a contract-basis through the packer. Because of this unique arrangement, yield grades for local cattle will also suffer due to the mud.

“We’ll get dinged if we sell fat cattle because they have mud on them right now,” Van Anne said. “Cattle are usually 64 percent, but if they have mud on them it goes back to 63 or 62 percent.”

If the yield grade is less, instead of cattle going out this week, they will be delayed two or three weeks.

“Every day they are in the yard it costs the feedlot $2.50 a head to feed them,” he said.

The cost of the delays adds up quickly to about $50 a head — expenses that quickly cut into whatever profit margin is left.

Van Anne said that the number of days delay depends on the feedlot, but regardless cattle will be late and not go out when they were scheduled.

Managing corpses

Beyond odors, rotting animal corpses bring risk of spreading disease, insects, and unwanted predators. Hazards of spreading disease also increase where animals have died in or near waterways. For information on how to properly dispose of these corpses, producers should contact the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality’s Waste Management Section at 402-471-4210.

Livestock Indemnity Program

Producers have 30 calendar days from the blizzard, (April 15), or when a loss first became apparent to apply for the Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP). Van Anne said producers need to document their losses, and further recommends a third-party audit.

“They can call their local veterinarian and have the veterinarian come out and take photos and document the age, weight and sex of the animals that have perished,” he said. “That way they have photos and a third-party audit so they don’t have any troubles when they do go in their FSA office or insurance agent to reclaim payments.”

For more information or to report cattle loss, contact your local FSA office.

How to help locally

The local chapter of Nebraska Cattlemen will be hosting a beef chili cookoff corresponding with Beef Month on May 25 at the 18th Street Plaza in downtown Scottsbluff. Proceeds will got the Nebraska Cattlemen’s Relief Fund to assist producers who have been impacted by the storms. Van Anne said that he would like to see 20 teams participate.

Teams must file an entry form with $25 per chili entered to the Western Nebraska Cattlemen’s Affiliate to reserve a spot. Registration is $20. Registration will be limited to 20 teams and will close May 4. Contestants may enter more than 1 chili recipe.

Those interested in participating should contact Van Anne at 308-641-1054 for more information and to register.