Image: Cattle in pond
Nati Harnik  /  AP
Cattle cool off in a water pond near Waterloo, Neb., last Friday.
updated 7/1/2009 10:30:57 AM ET 2009-07-01T14:30:57

More than 2,000 Nebraska cattle died last week during an unexpected spike in temperatures and humidity levels, with one feedlot alone losing 250 cattle, officials estimated Monday.

The deaths are not likely to have a major impact on the $10 billion cattle industry in Nebraska, which federal officials estimate has roughly 6.4 million head of cattle and calves. But producers who lost large numbers of cattle could see a significant financial loss.

The Farm Service Agency's Tim Reimer said Monday that mature cattle nearing slaughter are worth roughly $1,000 each. Such cattle are especially vulnerable to heat because it's more difficult for such large cattle to cool off, experts say.

The total number of deaths could grow as more of the state's 93 counties check in.

Many livestock producers were already struggling amid high feed costs before the heat wave moved in.

"There were some that took some pretty substantial hits financially," Reimer said.

Once all reports are in, the FSA will likely issue a disaster declaration that will allow cattle producers in affected counties to obtain low-interest loans. Mike Fitzgerald with the Nebraska Cattlemen, a trade group, said losing cattle to heat can be especially costly because such deaths usually aren't covered by insurance.

Temperatures reached the mid 90s in parts of eastern Nebraska last week, and high humidity prompted forecasters to issue heat warnings. The heat was especially hard on cattle because it followed an unusually cool period this spring. The quick change in temperatures meant the cattle didn't have a chance to acclimate.

"Cattle, as well as other animals and humans, usually need two to four weeks to adapt to the changes in environmental conditions we observed last week," said Terry Mader, an animal science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "Sunny days with temperatures above the mid-80s can be stressful, particularly if there is no wind and humidity is above 50 percent."

Heat waves usually strike somewhere in Nebraska every two or three years, but last week's heat was unusual because of how soon it struck and how quickly cattle died, said Mader, who researches ways to ease cattle stress and deal with extreme heat and cold.

A period of strong heat, high humidity and little wind generally strikes in July or August. Mader said cattle usually don't begin to succumb to the heat until the third or fourth day of a heat wave, so there's time for a producer to react.

But there were reports of large numbers of cattle dying on the first day of the heat last week, Mader said.

"There's no opportunity for them to get prepared," Mader said. "Normally, you'll have one to two days in a heat wave to get prepared."

In the 1990s, Nebraska experienced four heat waves like the one that struck last week. In two of them, roughly 5,000 cattle died statewide, while the other two heat waves saw about 2,000 cattle die, Mader said.

Drinking water helps cattle dissipate heat even if they're not thirsty, Mader said. So when it's hot, cattle may drink double or even triple their usual 5-to-6 gallons of water a day.

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