When the summer swelter is fit for neither man nor beast, most beasts do not have the luxury of air-conditioning like the family pet. And exposure to heat indexes near or in the triple digits can be deadly for animals like livestock.
“It’s hard on them,” said Nicky Baker, who manages cattle on about 150 acres of Dean Akridge’s pastureland just outside Fredonia in Lyon County. “They can easily overheat.”
Cattle farming is big business in Lyon County and across the state. As of Jan. 1, an estimated 4,000 head of cattle grazed on local pastures. With 2.13 million head, Kentucky has more cattle than any other state east of the Mississippi River.
The University of Kentucky Agricultural Weather Center offers the Livestock Heat Stress Index to help producers know when heat stress could create a problem for their animals. At that point, common sense — among both the cows and farmer — takes over.
On the local farm bisected by U.S. 641, the 55 or so head Baker oversees for Akridge can often be found in the afternoon shadows of trees or taking a cooling dip together in a large pond just off the highway. Baker said adequate water and shade are critical to keeping the cows as healthy as possible.
When it’s time for a dip in the pond, one cow’s instinct usually leads the way. Baker said cattle have a pecking order like most other groups of animals, and “when that boss cow says it’s time” for a splash in the pond, the herd follows suit. That same cow will lead them back to dry land when the wading is over.
“They’re a little bit like lemmings,” Baker said.
At best, the cattle maintain their weight during stressful summer periods. And for a commodity whose value is tied to every pound, July and August can be as hard on ranchers as January and February.
“They don’t put on any weight,” Baker said. “If anything, they’re gonna go in the opposite direction.”
Baker said the acreage he manages offers minimal shade for the animals at mid-day when the shadows are short, but the pond and cool, clean city water help the animals cope.
“Many farms don’t have that,” he said of the liquid refreshment on tap at Akridge’s farm that keeps the animals’ body temperature within normal limits. “Drinking the cool water helps.”
Calving in the summer is ill-advised. It is typically done during the fall and spring, giving calves time to grow strength and endurance for the harshest seasons. Summer calving could be a death sentence for a newborn when the mercury nears 100 and the air is muggy.
Cattle can be fairly low maintenance as long as there is sufficient water, shade and pasture on which to graze, but sometimes a little human intervention is necessary for the health of the herd.
“The best thing you can do is leave them alone,” Baker said of tending to the animals during oppressive heat, “but if you have to do anything, do it in the morning.”
Cattle farming is being made even more difficult during the pandemic, with a projected $13 billion industry loss due to COVID-19, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. The high cost of beef at the market is not translating for producers, as the prices paid at cattle markets have dropped. The problem lies with the closure of many processing plants hit by the virus, slowing production and the demand for slaughter cattle.