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As temperatures climb, livestock suffer and die from heat stress

A black and white photo of an Angus Cow with a white face. Its head is through the wires of a fence as it looks at the camera. There are other cows in the background. It is standing in a feedlot.
Ana Castro
Black Angus cows are particularly susceptible to heat stress, especially when they don't have any shade.

Out behind 307 Meats on the outskirts of Laramie, a rancher is dropping off three cows for slaughter. Owner Kelsey Christiansen helps them unload.

"Yeah, so these are our holding pens," he says. "There's concrete under this bedding. We bed our animals every night. That's our goal is to make sure the animals are calm before they're slaughtered. Better meat quality…those type of things. There's access to free water all the time."

The cattle unload under a large shaded awning. They've only been in the trailer for a couple of hours to get here.

"The other thing we do is we have a mister system. When it's hot in the summertime, we can turn [the] misters on to get this cooler out here so it's not 110 degrees," Christiansen explains.

307 Meats is a small processing facility that has the ability to think about ways to keep cattle from overheating. Many of the cattle come here from feedlots where it's much harder to keep thousands of animals cool. Earlier this summer, over 2,000 cattle died from heat stress in Kansas feedlots due to soaring temperatures. Lots of Wyoming ranchers take their cattle to D&D Feedlot in eastern Colorado. On a tour, black and white cows stop their chewing to watch the truck pass. Cattle handler Chelsea Deering says, as a team, they take pride in practicing low-stress animal handling like talking quietly to them.

"A stressed out animal is not going to have the same immune system that a content animal has," Deering says.

Her coworker Maddie says one way they gauge if cows are content is by watching their behavior for heat stress, including their breathing.

"It's getting kind of warm out right now so it wouldn't be unusual to see these guys breathing kind of heavy, just because cattle pant to cool down," Maddie says. "But if you were, for instance, to see one that was breathing heavier than everyone else - really like drooly, open mouth breathing - that might be something you want to look at."

Melodie Edwards
Wyoming Public Media
At 307 Meats in Laramie, livestock unload under a shaded awning, always have fresh water and are misted when temperatures get really high.

Here on the Great Plains, there aren't any trees for cattle to hide under either, and this part of Colorado reached over 100 degrees several times this summer.

Temple Grandin is renowned for revolutionizing how we slaughter livestock in the United States. But she says, as the climate warms, there's a whole new set of animal welfare challenges.

"Open mouth breathing in cattle is heat stress, period. That's scientifically validated," Grandin says. "Cattle at rest should breathe with the mouth shut. And the more they pant, and the more their tongue sticks out, their temperature is rising along with that."

Temple says feedlots without natural shade, like D&D, may need to invest in some new infrastructure as temperatures rise.

"We need to be putting shade in some of these pens," she says. "Some of these cattle need shade and they need enough shade that all the cattle can fit under the shadow."

But that could get expensive for lower-income producers. Gwendy Reyes-Illg is a veterinarian with the Animal Welfare Institute. She says feedlots might need to also install fans since shade can sometimes make animals even hotter by trapping humidity underneath. But she says there's one simple solution.

"Interestingly, trees are the best source of shade because, in addition to blocking out the solar radiation, the evaporation of water from their leaves cools the temperature," Reyes-Illg says.

The idea is catching on. Australia is even encouraging all feedlots to provide adequate shade by 2026. And a movement called silvopasturing is gaining traction in which animal handlers graze livestock under trees that can also be used for timber.

But Reyes-Illg says it's not just a matter of animal welfare; it's estimated that tens of thousands of animals are dying from heat stress globally every summer and that's hurting producers too.

"Putting animal welfare aside, but just looking at the production numbers, it's predicted by the end of the century that $15 to $40 billion a year will be lost from the meat and milk production, just of cattle, because of the anticipated temperature rises," says Reyes-Illg.

A big part of that loss, she says, happens during shipping. In fact, she says the number one cause of death for animals during transport is heat stress. The USDA requires truckers to ship animals for less than 28 hours at a time. But Reyes-Illg says her organization has documented even longer trips. Animals don't get food or water the whole time, and all those bodies packed in makes temps skyrocket.

"Cattle are being shipped really far distances to slaughter," she says. "The hotter the temperature, the longer the distance, you know, the mortality rate goes up; the incidence of animals arriving at the slaughterhouse not even able to stand because they're so dehydrated or have become injured."

Reyes-Illg says one really good way to reduce livestock mortality is to shorten the distance they're shipped. That might mean having them slaughtered at smaller, more local plants. Like at 307 Meats, that we met earlier. For owner Kelsey Christiansen, his main goal is to bring notice to the high quality care that local ranchers provide their cattle.

"I want to work for companies like Bootheel Seven Ranch out of Lusk. And I want to work for Wyoming Pure Natural Beef out of Wheatland. Because they're direct-to-consumer and they have the ability to track all their cattle at all times," Christiansen says.

Perhaps the livestock industry will take a cue from the little guys, raising fewer animals globally so it can provide the most humane conditions possible as temperatures go up and up.

Melodie Edwards is the host and producer of WPM's award-winning podcast The Modern West. Her Ghost Town(ing) series looks at rural despair and resilience through the lens of her hometown of Walden, Colorado. She has been a radio reporter at WPM since 2013, covering topics from wildlife to Native American issues to agriculture.

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