Veterinarian, feedyard operator discuss southwest Kansas cattle deaths

“Mother Nature really handed us a very, very tough situation, and we handled it the very best we could.”

Tera Barnhardt, a southwest Kansas veterinarian, recently spoke along with Trista Brown Priest, on an Instagram live event hosted by Brandi Buzzard Frobose, an agricultural advocate and digital creator. The pair discussed the heat stress natural disaster affecting cattle in Haskell and Grant County feedyards.

Barnhardt said cattle can acclimate to different weather conditions.

“They can tolerate heat, they can tolerate cold, they can tolerate a lot of water, a lot of different weather,” she said. “However, they do need to acclimate to it. In a sense that it needs to happen gradually, which typically we’re subject to weather like that in Kansas.”

The weather earlier in June didn’t allow for any acclimation and up until the triple digits that were recorded June 12 and 13, the weather had been relatively mild.

Southwest Kansas is home to more than 2 million feeder cattle, and it’s superior to growing cattle, Barnhardt said because of the arid climate.

“It usually is not very wet, and we can grow crops, we can grow cattle, things usually work that way,” she said. “What we had happen on June 11 is odd for our area.”

The oddity was the high temperatures, high humidity and little to no wind.

“We don’t typically see very high humidity,” she said. “And that’s what we were dealt and we don’t typically see temperatures that rise that fast. June has been ridiculously mild the first nine to 10 days.”

The area got much needed rain June 9 and agricultural producers were happy to have the rain.

“Then all of a sudden we had this incident where we had too high of humidity, really high temperatures and we did not have any wind and that is very, very odd for our area,” she said. “And wind will mechanically cool cattle even if the air is hot, they will mechanically cool themselves because they are unable to sweat like humans.”

Barnhardt said cattle can acclimate to high temps as long as there’s wind. This time however, the wind never came. The cattle started to suffer from the effects of heat stress as a result of the lack of wind, high temps and high humidity.

“Heat stress is exactly what it sounds like—you’re subjected to temperatures that you’re not used to and your body can’t compensate for it,” she said. “(Signs include) open mouth breathing, they extend their neck to try to increase airflow. Cattle will actually behaviorally seek shade and they’ll seek shade from their pen mates or the fence line.”

Barnhardt knew exactly what she was up against with the surviving cattle and what tactics they needed to employ. The numbers of cattle lost, ranging from 2,000 to 10,000 animals isn’t confirmed yet, but the focus needs to be placed on the ones who are still alive.

“(The numbers) may shock a lot of people but we saved a lot of cattle,” she said. “The things we did, and the people that trust employees and the people who take care of our cattle—they saved a lot of cattle during this event. There were a lot of feedyards that came away with numbers that they should be proud of because we did our very best to mitigate the heat that we were up against.”

Cattle Empire Chief Operating Officer Priest said the humidity during this event was around 60% to 80%, and the area’s normal humidity is usually less than 20%.

“So extremely, extremely different than what we’re used to,” Priest said. “I know some of you live in humid climates, but we do not and we’re not used to those kinds of conditions.”

Both Barnhardt and Priest believe if the cattle had time to acclimate to the weather conditions, the death loss would have been much more manageable.

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By the time of the Instagram event with Buzzard on June 18, the animals at Cattle Empire had already started showing signs of acclimation. The wind had returned and the humidity had gone down.

Priest said looking back, they’d gotten rain June 6 to 8 and were “so thrilled because it had been so dry.”

“We haven’t had any moisture since September,” she said. “But really the areas that got the most rain—Haskell County and Grant County—were where they were hit the hardest.”


Priest said many questions have arisen following the disaster including carcass disposal, food supply and prevention. She said a feedyard’s role is to constantly supply the packing plant with cattle. Most often this is done weeks in advance.

In the overall picture, the death loss over the two counties was pretty small, noting there were pens with single digits of death loss. Priest said there are more than 2 million cattle on feed in southwest Kansas.

Priest said since the death losses started on a Sunday morning they discovered rendering plants couldn’t take the carcasses and disposal companies were too overwhelmed to come get theirs. On Monday, they started hauling the carcasses to the local landfills who had opened up to help with disposal of dead cattle.

“We hauled as many as we could to landfills and then we buried the rest of them,” Priest said. “We have an emergency burial site that is permitted and regulated by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. So we talked to them on Sunday, to get permission to be able to bury cattle.”

Mother Nature has a way of putting those in agriculture “in our place” according to Barnhardt.

“We have plans for a lot of things that nature throws our way—snow storms, tornadoes—that we have plans in place at the feedyard for what we’re going to do in case of XYZ happening” she said.

Barnhardt said it was difficult to predict the weather conditions and how they would play out. There are always those animals who just can’t handle the weather conditions, no matter what caretakers do to mitigate. Priest’s crew was able to put supplemental water tanks out, bedding material and spread the cattle out in the pens by placing the supplemental water on the opposite end of the pen from feed.

Buzzard, Priest and Barnhardt have all fielded questions as to why mitigation efforts like sprinklers or shade weren’t utilized in some of these feedyards. Priest said at Cattle Empire, there’s two potential issues with sprinklers.

“The reason we ultimately decided not to do that strategy is because we were trying to mitigate humidity and we felt like wetting down the cattle would just create more humidity,” Priest said. “And once you get cattle wet, you have to keep getting them wet.”

Shade was tricky as well because in southwest Kansas, there’s not as many trees. Manufactured shades tend to get shredded by the wind, and not work as intended. After the recent event, Priest is going to revisit the shade offerings for the feedyard.

Mental toll

The live event wrapped up with a question about mental health. Barnhardt sees Priest’s “people” as her people too and everyone’s heart is breaking.

“I want everyone on here who’s a consumer of beef and maybe just wanting to connect with this story and figuring out what happened and putting some of the theories to rest maybe connect with those of us—we’re humans out here, she said. “We’re doing the very best we can.”

Working in a feedyard is a long hard day on a good day, Barnhart said.

“Those people are salt of the earth, so my hat’s off to them for saving so many animals and for doing such a good job,” she said.

For Priest, mentally the worst days were those where she was in the thick of it, especially watching employees deal with the tasks at hand. Since they’ve had a little reprieve with the weather, and cattle are becoming better acclimated, the mental health has improved some with her team

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].