Livestock producers try to keep animals comfortable in bitter windchills
WORTHINGTON — The Worthington area is expected to break a couple of records today, but they’re nothing to brag about.
Just ask a livestock farmer who spends his or her days in and out of barns and tractor cabs.
“You can put all the layers on you want,” said cattle producer Adam Blume of rural Worthington. “The cold ain’t so bad — it’s the wind. The wind will go through anything.
“It’s just one of the challenges we face. We fight through,” he said Tuesday.
The National Weather Service in Sioux Falls, S.D., predicts Worthington will break single-day records today for the lowest temperature, as well as the highest cold temperature for Jan. 30.
Andrew Kalin, NWS meteorologist, said the predicted minus-30 low will break a record of minus-18 set on Jan. 30, 1996. The record cold high for the day, set in 2004 at minus-9, will also be shattered with the minus-16 high that’s forecast.
“Climate records for Worthington only go back to the 1970s,” Kalin said, adding a little context to the numbers. The NWS has a larger set of statistics for many other communities.
“The extreme cold will thankfully be relatively short-lived as we expect temperatures to warm up through the weekend, with highs Saturday back into the upper 30s,” Kalin said.
That kind of temperature swing brings with it more concerns for cattle producers.
“I’d rather have it stay cold — not this cold — than get to 40 degrees (this weekend),” said rural Wilmont cattle producer Jesse Brake. “You’ll start seeing respiratory problems when you’re going up and down like that.”
They’ll be seen especially in those cattle with weakened immune systems — the calves that went through the early April blizzards in 2018, then endured the long stretch of wet, foggy and damp weather last fall.
With a third of their cattle under roof and two-thirds outdoors, Brake said they do the best they can to keep the livestock comfortable.
“If you could have a building in this part of the country, that’s the best thing to have,” he said.
The pork industry shifted to confinement barns, and Brake envisions the cattle industry will go that direction as well. Today’s markets, however, don’t justify the cost.
The Brakes built a slat barn a few years ago, and based on the past two winters, it was well worth it. Not only does it protect the cattle from the extreme cold and wind, but Brake is seeing higher feed efficiency and less feed waste.
“When you’re feeding that feed (indoors), you know all the feed in the bunk is used by the animal,” Brake said. “Outside, a foot of snow gets dumped on the feed and you’re losing all of that gain and all of that efficiency.”
Many cattle producers in the region use corn stalk bales for bedding and just keep adding more to the pile to create added warmth. The bales are also used to buffer the wind around open feedlots.
“The biggest thing is to keep the cornstalks underneath them and the water tanks thawed,” Brake said.
At the Russ Penning farm southeast of Wilmont, it’s bedding, bedding and more bedding for the cattle in outdoor lots. The family farm has roughly half of its cattle under roof and the other half outdoors.
On Tuesday morning, a few frozen valves were found on waterers, and the focus was on adding to the bed pack, Penning said.
“We try to bed them in the morning so they lay down after they eat,” he added. “We don’t want to disrupt them after they lay down so they stay on the bed pack. You do all you can do.”
Ryan Thier, at R&R Feedlots near Rushmore, said increasing the amount of hay fed to cattle during this cold spurt will help the livestock meet their energy requirements.
“We’re keeping their waters open to keep them hydrated as much as we can, and bed them on a daily basis,” Thier said. “The cattle can take the cold — it’s the wind.
“Thirty below and no wind, I’d take that before zero and wind,” he added. “This wind, it’s really hard on them.”
The outdoor lots on the Thier farm have cement windbreaks to protect the cattle, but there’s no avoiding the cold. It can be just as hard on the people and equipment as it is on the animals.
“It seems like you’ve got to work three times as hard to do something that’s not so hard of a task,” Thier said. “It takes so much more fuel, and machinery-wise, you have to do so much more preparation to go out in this weather.”
As for the cattle producers, dressing in layers is the key.
“You just wear a lot of layers — cover up as much skin as possible,” said Brake, whose own face mask was littered with icicles during chore time Tuesday morning. “The guys that are on foot walking the cattle, they’re outside for four hours in the cold. The rest of the day we can be inside with the machinery.
“Mittens work the best when it’s this cold, just because you can ball your hands up,” added Blume. Even with warm boots or mittens, “it’s really hard to fight it off,” he said.
At the Blume farm, cattle are housed in both a hoop barn and a pit barn. Both help to keep the wind out. Still, with the temperature swing in the forecast, Blume knows that won’t be good for cattle.
“That’s when you really battle the pneumonia,” he said.
Back at the NWS office, Kalin said there isn’t yet a clear signal for what the rest of the winter will bring to this part of the Midwest.
“Looking more short-term, the eight-to-14 day outlook, we’re kind of in the elevated odds of below normal temperatures,” he said.
As for getting through today’s extreme cold, Kalin said the best advice is to stay indoors.
“It’s not necessarily an option for some professions,” he said. “Make sure you wear multiple layers and protect all exposed skin.
“We’re looking at wind chills of 50- to 60-below zero. In those temperatures, frostbite can occur in as little as five minutes,” he added.