Ranchers raising cattle is a large and vital industry in Oklahoma. And the Sooner state is home to scores of beef lovers.
During times of extreme weather, such as the biggest recorded snowfall in state history last week, both ranchers and livestock struggled to survive, industry officials said.
Scott Dewald is with the Oklahoma Cattleman’s Association, next to the stockyards, the largest theater market for cattle in the world.
“In times of extreme weather, producers of beef have to deal with a lot of sick cattle. This results in cows getting ill, stressed, and a lack of productivity in our business,” Dewald said.
He said cows are prone to illness anytime there is an outside temperature change of 30 degrees or greater. Between Jan. 29 and Feb. 1, the high temperature dropped from 75 degrees, to 17.
“If cattle are stressed, diseased or sick, you can’t take them to harvest. It results in an animal that’s called a dark cutter. This means that the meat is a very dark reddish-purple purple color and the producer is penalized heavily for that,” he said.
The USDA does meat inspections for major disease issues. If a cow is ill at the time of slaughter, that meat will be taken out of the production system.
State Veterinarian Becky Burr said ranchers are scurrying to keep their herds healthy, working through the freezing snow and sub-zero tundra.
This includes herding cattle into pastures that preferably provide the natural shelter of trees, chopping through layers of ice to let animals drink the water below, and giving cows extra feed, as the animals need additional calories to generate body heat, she said.
“Livestock are generally acclimated to survive the weather,” Burr said. “But these conditions are rather severe.
“The biggest problem is when animals are isolated from feed and water by drifts. We always see some livestock lost in weather like this. When you have 27 inch drifts of snow cattle become isolated from their feed and water,” Burr said.
Sandra Morgan is a toxicologist for the Oklahoma Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory.
“We’ve had a lot of cases of pneumonia in cows, even before the blizzard, and we are going to see even more after the weather dies down,” Morgan said.
“Some people can’t even get to their cattle in these conditions, so any cows that weren’t feeling well before this blizzard, might be casualties if they aren’t able to get the care they need to handle the cold,” she said.
Besides sick cows, ranchers are also dealing with malnourished and dehydrated cows, many of whom are isolated from their water and feeders due to snowdrifts, Morgan said.
Morgan, alongside her husband are also cattle ranchers.
Last week she had to walk out in the blizzard with an axe to chop holes a frozen pond so her animals would suffer dehydration. She said that as she was hacking away at ice with her axe, she kept falling down into freezing, knee high mud.
Blayne Arthur is the legislative liaison for the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, and also a cattle rancher.
Arthur said it might be a good idea for ranchers to invest in heaters for their stock water tanks, so they won’t have to continuously chop ice.
“Our cattle have been given free access to shelter in our barn to give them a break from the intense cold winds and temperature. Luckily we’ve suffered no causalities or loss of product,” Arthur said.
Morgan read meteorological reports and rounded her herd in a different location.
“We personally moved the feeder for our cattle over by a grove of cedar trees to protect our cows, so they could have a windbreak and use the tops of the trees as shelter,” Morgan said.
The department of agriculture warns that working in these conditions is dangerous and recommended ranchers work in pairs and drive their tractors carefully on the ice.
“If you are a rancher in need of emergency resources or assistance, contact the county emergency manager. People always come before livestock,” Burr said.