Drought’s Hidden Killing Power

Rain makes corn. Corn makes whiskey. Whiskey sounds pretty good when it’s only rained .7 inches in 3 months. The drought that has affected millions across the U.S. has cost farmers and ranchers more than what is on the surface.

It’s obvious to a trained eye to see a field that has been affected by the lack of rain. Corners of leaves are turned up, growth has been stunted, and instead of looking a healthy green, the plant has a tint of yellow and looks fragile. Farmers in the Dakota’s have weighed combining crops, such as wheat, or feeding it instead to their cattle. Crops aren’t the only part of agriculture that suffers when there is no rain. Pastures, where cattle graze, can’t grow enough to meet the nutrient need the cattle need. But, feeding cattle heat stressed wheat may not be the solution they were looking.

Nitrate Toxicity

In a normal growing season: nitrates come up from the soil, convert into nitrite, then convert into ammonia which further converts into the protein that plants use to grow. When a crop is fed to a cow, they absorb proteins left in the grain. Therefore, cows are always exposed to some level of nitrates.

A huge factor in this process of converting everything is energy. Like humans, plants that are stressed don’t have a lot of energy! When there is little to no rain it causes plants to become stressed. Converting nitrite into ammonia cannot happen; the plant simply has no energy left. Instead of having protein, cows absorb the nitrite and it gets in their bloodstream. While nitrite is in the bloodstream, it converts the hemoglobin into methemoglobin which limits the animal’s ability to carry oxygen. (Obviously, that’s bad!)

Heat Stress

When it rains, it pours. When it doesn’t rain, it’s hot. Cattle, like other mammals, use homeostasis to regulate their body temperature. There’s a “sweet spot” where cattle don’t use energy to stay cool or warm called the thermoneutral zone. Heat stress occurs when the animal’s temperature is above that zone and it cannot be lowered. Cattle that are at the highest risk of heat stress are those in a feedlot closest to market weight. It goes without saying, but heat stress is deadly to cattle if it’s not caught in time.

 Take Away

Drought shows its ugly face in more ways than one. It’s extremely important as ranchers to remember the not-as-obvious effects of a drought. Certain things to keep in mind;

  1. Cattle need water – Making sure there is access to ample water is always rule one.
  2. Test nitrate levels before feeding heat stressed forage – it’s bad enough the grain cannot produce for harvest and your cattle are out of a pasture. Don’t take the risk losing your cattle too.
  3. Do not work cattle in extreme temperature – sometimes you have to postpone are cancel working them. If absolutely necessary, make it quick and not in the evening after a hot day (cattle need this time to recover).

Drought is hard on everything (emotional health included). Keeping our cattle healthy is just as important as irrigating our fields. They depend on our willingness to learn, to survive. So along with the other 27 things, it needs to be priority number one!

As always, be kind.

Here are some of the sources I’ve used and some more links you may find interesting. Enjoy!





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