When winter storms strike, livestock farmers and ranchers do a number of things to prepare, not only for their home and family but also for their livestock before the storm hits. On occasion, these storms strike with such a fury, that impacts may be catastrophic and historic in nature. Even in a cattle feedlot.
This was the case in 2013 when the Atlas Blizzard struck the Dakotas region, killing tens of thousands of livestock and wildlife. As I wrote following the storm, ranchers in the region had to deal with significant loss due to blowing snow and cattle buried in snow on the rugged rangeland.
More recently, the Goliath blizzard wreaked havoc in eastern New Mexico and west Texas with winds of more than 80 mph, created snow drifts larger than 12 feet in height. Ag media reported on the impact as dairy farmers in the region suffered an early estimated loss of thousands of dairy cattle.
Outrage toward farmers
Much outrage was expressed on social media, suggesting that farmers did not take appropriate precautions to protect their livestock from the storm, asking why cattle were not protected in heated barns, or why cattle were not moved out of harm’s way. Carrie Mess shared the struggles encountered and work dairy farmers did to prepare and deal with the storm’s impacts.
Beef cattle farmers and ranchers were also impacted by the storm. While the region does not see major snowstorms on a regular basis, they are familiar with strong winds accompanying winter storms. I experienced this first-hand living in the Texas Panhandle and working in cattle feedlots.
I recently spoke with Jason Hitch, owner of Hitch Enterprises near Guymon, Oklahoma. The company has two cattle feedlots with 110,000 head capacity, along with a farrow to finish hog operation marketing 30,000 pigs annually and a number of other agricultural businesses. My family has fed cattle with the Hitch family for as long as I can remember, so I am thankful for Jason sharing his experience on taking care of cattle in the region and explaining preparations that come with winter storms in cattle feedlots.
Feedlot Cattle Care
Ryan Goodman: How do cattle feedlots prepare for a winter storm?
Jason Hitch: With warning of a winter storm, first preparations include making sure extra feed is on hand and stored. We will add more roughage to the diet and give cattle extra rations as the storm gets close. For younger calves, we may put up a hay bale snow fence for wind protection. We make sure equipment is tuned up and running, such as backup generators loaders and tractors.
Ryan: In the Panhandle region, there may be several miles between town, where employees liv, and the feedlot. What preparations do you take in anticipation of travel problems?
Jason: In our case, when it looks like a big storm, we’ll take some sleeping bags and cots to keep a small crew on hand at all times. Traveling in snow can be managed, but you never know if someone may abandon a car in the road or if a semi-truck will jack-knife in the road, making it impassable.
Ryan: When predicting a big storm, what goes on top of normal preparations?
Jason: When planning on a major storm, we have snowblowers prepared to clear areas that collect snow around the facilities, buildings and feed mill. Wind can be a big problem in the Panhandle, blowing snow, feed and freezing exposed pipes.
Feeding Cattle in a storm
Ryan: Keeping cattle fed is critically important in these winter storms. What problems may arise during storms regarding feed?
Jason: Keeping feed bunks clean can be a problem, especially if the feed gets wet. Feeds higher in corn will spoil more quickly in a bunk, compared to hay or high-roughage feeds. When moisture gets in the feed, you have scoop bunks. If it’s frozen, cattle will sort through the feed and do just fine. If feed gets wet, you have to plan on an extra couple hours each feeding to go through and scoop bunks before you feed the next time, which occurs two to three times each day. Wet feed, followed by sub-freezing temperatures and ice can make this even more difficult.
Feedlot Shelter for cattle
Ryan: The Panhandle region can often warm up quickly after a cold spell. What problems may be seen after a winter storm, especially one dropping significant amounts of snow?
Jason: When temperatures warm quickly, everything turns to mud. Water in the pens gets cattle wet, they need to find a dry spot and pen maintenance becomes a bigger issue. Especially with several storms back to back, getting cattle wet, followed by cold, is much different from cattle being in cold alone. We would rather have snow than a 35-degree rain.
Ryan: People have been concerned about cattle not having a barn to go into when these storms come through. Where is the threshold when cold negatively impacts cattle?
Jason: If a pen is maintained correctly with proper drainage, it will dry again fairly quick. Further north, in areas such as Iowa or Minnesota, feedlots may use barns or shelters more often. These feedlots are not as large, close to 10,000 cattle and it rains year round. Cattle stay comfortable when it is dry and they will generate heat when their stomachs are full.
Ryan: How are feedlot pens maintained to keep cattle dry and comfortable during the winter?
Jason: In the Panhandle region, we are dry for the most part. When it does get wet, it is important to be sure pen is shaped to drain. We create mounds in the middle of a pen so that everything drains to the outside. If you get moisture, cattle lay on sides of mounds to get out of mud and have a place to stay dry. They can get out of the wind a bit and lay on the sunny side, which makes a huge difference in cattle being comfortable.
Cattle in the Storm
Ryan: Much attention was given to dairy cattle losses from the Goliath storm. Do beef cattle feedlots fare well during these big winter storms?
Jason: We will have a few cattle deaths from the cold and wind. Those conditions can be hard on their respiratory systems, blowing particulates around in the cold. Like most animals, cattle normally walk or turn away from the storm. Bigger losses are economics, seen through lost weight gain, or yield of cattle decreased due to carrying mud. These big storm events have a long tail, meaning the cattle that were hit during the storm, even if they were in the feedlot 100 days with 100 more to go, will likely add 10 days to their feeding period. It may take a while for those animals to catch back up to pre-storm performance.
Ryan: How are ranchers impacted by a storm like Goliath with cattle in pastures and larger ranges?
Jason: Larger areas or rougher country may give cattle places to hide. However, cattle may become buried by snow in these canyons. Relying on instincts to get out of the storm, cattle will walk away from the wind, sometimes through fences. Big storms, even with a little snow, cattle may travel 20-30 miles from their point of origin. Hot wire fences may fail with cold batteries.
Caring for cattle
Ryan: Do small ranchers fare better than larger ranches during winter storms?
Jason: Depending on the ranch, they tend to fare a little worse because ranchers may not spend as much time preparing for the storm. For different people, ranching may be their sole profession, allowing them more time or resources preparing for a storm. For smaller operations (25-30 head), ranching may be secondary income, and they may not be as well equipped to prepare for a storm. These smaller ranchers may not have hay or feed stockpiled or ways to move several hay bales at a time. If a small producer needs 6 bales at once for a wind break, they may need to borrow a trailer to move hay for cattle shelter.
Taking care of people
Ryan: Aside from taking care of cattle, is it important for feedlot employees to prepare for winter storms?
Jason: Taking care of cattle is important, but we also need to take care of people. Do they have all their gear – coats, hats, gloves – or have they fueled up vehicles ahead of time. Sometimes they are so focused on getting hay out and cattle taken care of, they forget about preparing themselves. Last year in the feedlot, we had a cowboy riding in a felt hat, no gloves, no cap, just in jeans and heavy Carhartt jacket. His heart was in the right place taking care of cattle, but he wasn’t prepared to be out in that cold and wind. We also have to take care of our folks and make sure they’re taking care of themselves. No matter how well you prepare, something will go wrong.
Again, a big thank you to Jason Hitch for lending his time to share experience working with cattle feedlots in a winter storm. Be sure to follow Hitch Enterprises on Facebook and follow Jason on Twitter. You can learn more about cattle feedlots in these earlier articles:
Like what you see here? Sign up for my newsletter to be notified of future stories and weekly headlines. Click here to sign up.