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Days of intense heat have killed thousands of cattle in Kansas

Kansas officials say weather conditions made it hard for cows to cool down in an intense heat wave. Here, cattle graze near wind turbines in Hays, Kansas, in 2017.
Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Kansas officials say weather conditions made it hard for cows to cool down in an intense heat wave. Here, cattle graze near wind turbines in Hays, Kansas, in 2017.

Intense heat that baked Kansas over the weekend is being blamed for killing thousands of cattle — a toll documented in striking images on social media.

"The Kansas Department of Health and Environment is aware of at least 2,000 cattle deaths that occurred in the southwest part of Kansas," Matt Lara, the agency's communications director, told NPR on Thursday.

Lara also confirmed conditions had made it "difficult for the cows to stay cool."

In widely seen video footage, rows of carcasses are shown lined up along the edge of a farm field. State officials are blaming a heat wave that sent temperatures higher than 100 degrees.

The new losses come as farmers across the Great Plains region are already struggling to cope with drought and high winds, along with the increased threat of wildfires.

It's hard to get a sense of the scale of the deaths

The figure from the state health and environment agency reflects only the losses at farms that asked for help in disposing of carcasses, suggesting the actual tally could be higher.

A spokesperson for the Kansas Department of Agriculture confirmed to NPR on Thursday that "several weather factors combined which led to heat stress for cattle that impacted cattle producers."

But the representative also noted that cattle ranches aren't required to report those losses, "so we don't have any data about the extent of the impact."

Dangerous weather conditions aren't confined to any one county in Kansas, where beef cattle dominates the agriculture sector, making it one of the main cattle-producing U.S. states.

Nearly the entire western half of Kansas is currently classified as abnormally dry or in a drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor website.

Heat blasted from under 80 degrees to more than 104

To get a sense of what the animals were dealing with, it helps to look at the weather's recent whipsaw effect.

Temperatures rapidly spiked in Kansas in the past week, blasting past 100 degrees. Some of the worst heat struck Haskell County in the southwest. In recent years, it's been the top cattle-producing county in Kansas, with 385,000 head of cattle reported in 2021.

In Haskell County, the heat rocketed from a moderate high of 79.9 degrees on June 9 to a scalding 101.1 degrees just two days later. Then came three more days of triple-digit highs that topped out at more than 104 degrees, according to weather data from Kansas State University.

Conditions also became very dry in Haskell, with relative humidity falling from nearly 80% to less than 24%, with zero precipitation over a seven-day stretch. The baking heat was inescapable: even four inches beneath the soil's surface, the temperature reached nearly 92 degrees.

The animals would have been valued around $2,000 each

"It's a significant impact," Scarlett Hagins of the Kansas Livestock Association tells local TV station KAKE, adding that the market-ready value for each animal would have been around $2,000.

"Any kind of animal loss is significant to a producer, to cattle feeder, to a rancher. No one wants to see any kind of loss like this," she said.

The industry website AG Daily lists ways cattle producers can lessen the risk to their animals, from ensuring they have enough water, space and shade to watching for signs of heat stress, such as protruding tongues and heavy breathing.

"Fat cattle, those who still are carrying some of their summer hair, and cattle who have suffered respiratory illness are the most susceptible to heat stress," the site states.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.