This winter's harsh weather will subside, but its effect on Plains-area cattle herds will linger long after the ice and snow have melted away, says Kansas State University Research and Extension veterinarian Larry Hollis.
"The weather this winter has certainly resulted in some death loss in cattle, but the real problems are going to be much harder to get our arms around," Hollis says.
Winter storms prompted Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to request federal assistance for 44 counties. In turn, President Bush declared a major disaster in Kansas, making federal funding available to state and local governments in those 44 western Kansas counties.
Hollis says that although the death loss already tallied from this year's snow and ice storms could have been even worse, he is concerned about what he called "secondary losses" – weak calves at birth, cows that are in poorer condition than usual during calving season, and the possibility that cows' poor condition at re-breeding time could impact fertility and, ultimately, conception rates.
A lot will depend on how many days these cattle went without feed, which varies from one operation to another, he says. Those animals that went without feed for one or more periods over the last several weeks used up body reserves, which will make them even more vulnerable to cold snaps.
In an instance like that, when a cow was already stressed and lost body condition, a cold snap can sometimes spark spontaneous abortions – usually within 48 hours of the drop in temperatures, Hollis says.
"The key to keep that from happening," he adds, "is to feed well and start getting body condition back where it should be. Winter feed costs are out of sight this year, so that's a hard pill to swallow, but feed is the best medicine in this case."
He acknowledges that that could be especially challenging this winter, given that high quality feed may not be available in the quantities and areas where it's needed most.
"I expect that in some herds, we will have more neo-natal death loss this winter if we can't get some condition back on these cows between now and when they calve," Hollis says. "It might help to get calves in a warming box if the lack of calf vigor is due to the cold. And this year, it may be especially important to give cows a warmer, dry place to calve."
The effects of the recent wintry weather could last all the way until time to re-breed cows.
"We will have a lot of cows that aren't cycling at breeding time. Don't look at the hair – look at the cow – try to determine what she needs to make sure she is in the best condition at breeding time as possible," Hollis says.