Extreme weather events are occurring more frequently. Different regions of the world face various challenges: wildfires, hurricanes, tornados, drought, and even extreme heat or cold. Each of these can cause hardship on livestock and we as cattle owners need to adapt. The stakes are high when extreme weather can cause cattle health problems, and result in loss of livestock or profit if we don't handle the situation properly.

Cattle and humans can suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The sources of PTSD have evolved over time, and extreme weather events require new strategies. While wolf attacks can still cause PTSD in cattle, poor cattle handling, wildfires, and extreme weather can also cause stress in cattle.

As stockmen and women, we have a responsibility to continually improve our facilities and our cattle handling practices. Helping cattle adapt minimizes the effects that PTSD has on them. We must help cattle adapt to these environmental changes to minimize the likelihood of cattle experiencing PTSD from extreme weather events.

Preparing Your Cattle

Extreme weather events can challenge even the healthiest animals:

  • A puncture wound after a hurricane could lead to tetanus.
  • Smoke inhalation during a wildfire can cause respiratory issues.
  • Flooding or heavy rainstorms can lead to skin and feet problems.
  • Stress and diet changes can cause bloat and diarrhea.
  • Stress in any of these situations can cause pneumonia.

Healthy animals are more resilient. Follow these guidelines to set your animals up for success before an adverse event.

  1. Work with your veterinarian. Make sure animals are vaccinated and routine herd health checks are complete. Update your records and include all forms of animal identification.
  2. Check identification. Are all your animals easily identified? Are RFID and other tags in place? Tags can easily be lost. Do you have another way to identify your animals? Spray paint or paint sticks work as a form of temporary identification in an emergency for cattle that haven't been branded. Many insurance agents require a photo inventory of property. Consider compiling a photo inventory of cattle if time allows.
  3. Plan for water access. Water is the most important nutrient for cattle and is necessary for survival. Contaminated water, lack of water, or water with debris can lower water intake. Identify water holding areas and sources before they are needed.
  4. Beware of poisonous trees and plants. There are many poisonous trees and plants that affect cattle. Look around your property for cherry, oak, or Ponderosa Pine trees. These are all poisonous to cattle. If one comes down in an extreme weather event and falls into your pasture it should be removed immediately. Monitor your cattle if fences come down and they have access to poisonous plants and trees in other locations.

Preparing Your Facilities

How many times have you walked around your operation and noticed something that needs repairing? Are you still walking past that same item that needs repairing three weeks later? It happens to all of us!

Cattle operations are labor intensive, and there are rarely enough hours in the day. However, with extreme weather events becoming more common we need to make repairs that can enhance safety and stability of our facilities a priority. Here are a few things that should be taken care of on an operation before an extreme weather event hits:

  1. Check your insurance policy. Make sure it is up to date and you have insurance for the extreme weather events that may happen in your area. Most carriers will not allow you to add the policy immediately preceding the weather event, so it is best to have your policy in place early.
  2. Create an emergency plan. Is evacuation possible? Where will you store feed? How can you get fresh water for livestock? Who can help in an emergency? Make a plan before you need it for these and other questions pertinent to your operation's needs in an emergency situation.
  3. Make a list of all repairs needed. Include your barn, fencing, water systems, cattle handling system, holding pens, and cattle trailer. This list may include replacing rotting fence posts, purchasing a new trailer tire, adding a gate to your cattle handling system, or fixing a leaky water hydrant. Prioritize the repairs and start work on the most important ones first. Do your best to work through the list ahead of any extreme weather events, as it will make things easier when an event strikes.
  4. Plan locations for cattle during the extreme weather event. You do not want to confine cattle to a small area or place them in the barn during an extreme weather event. Their best chance for survival is to have options - whether that means getting to high ground in a flood, or fleeing the path of a wildfire or hurricane. Make sure gates that need to be open can be fixed firmly open when necessary, and not block escape routes.
  5. Secure feed for cattle. Try and keep your feed safe and protected to reduce damage and loss, as it may be difficult to find replacement feed after an event has taken place.

Adapting Your Handling Skills

Cattle that survive extreme weather events may suffer from PTSD. The signs of stress in cattle typically present as cattle health problems or increased flightiness during handling. It may be evident through health indicators such as pneumonia or diarrhea. Or, you might not notice the stress in your cattle until you need to work them through your system with the veterinarian. Be proactive; do not wait until you need to handle cattle to determine what changes have occurred in the herd and monitor them for the effects of PTSD.

  1. Evaluate your cattle from a distance. Watch the herd for behavioral changes that may indicate PTSD from extreme weather. Cattle may move around more, eat less, or startle easily. Try and gauge how many cattle are affected before interacting with your livestock and working them.
  2. Group cattle carefully. Cattle are herd animals. If some animals are suffering from PTSD and others are not, create a group where dominant cattle without PTSD are mixed with those with signs of PTSD. The confidence of some herd members may help those that are struggling.
  3. Review your handling system. It may be time for a cattle handling system upgrade if you noticed that your cattle startle easily. The homemade chute that worked before may heighten stress levels now. Perhaps you already have an efficient cattle handling system. Can you add rubber flooring to the chute to make it quieter and less slippery? Is it finally time to retire that old self-catch and trade it in for a quieter model? A small upgrade can go a long way to minimizing cattle stress.
  4. Reframe your handling agenda. You may have been an efficient low-stress cattle handler in the past, working animals through your system in a steady rhythm. Old ways of handling may disappear while your cattle recover from PTSD. Slow down even further, provide cattle plenty of space, and make sure it is a positive experience. Handling can increase stress in cattle, so acclimating them to your system can help.
  5. Keep everyone safe. Use your low stress cattle handling techniques. Add in extra hands and extra time. Upgrade your facilities with a vet box for additional safety. Let cattle adjust and become comfortable on the property again before you try and work them.

One of the best things you can do for your cattle after an extreme weather event is provide clean water, quality forage, and a mineral supplement in a safe location. Ensuring cattle have the nutrition they need is an important first step in stabilizing their health and lowering stress levels.

Extreme weather events may be part of life, but we do not have to let the PTSD that extreme weather can cause in cattle control our operation. We can prepare our cattle, facilities, and handling skills to meet these new challenges head-on, leading to increased success in the days to come.

What do wolf attacks and cattle chutes have in common? Wildfires and Cattle Stress

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Be Aware of Livestock Trauma After a Wildfire
Fact Sheet: Poisonous Plants for Cattle
Hurricane Preparedness and Recovery for Beef-Cattle Operations
Low Stress Cattle Handling: The Basics
Plants Poisonous to Livestock
Wildfire Damage to Cattle May be More Than The Eye Can See
Wolf Attacks Have Long-Term Impact on Cowherd

About the Author

Dana Charban, Manager of Content Strategies and Journalist for Arrowquip, catching black cow in Q-Catch 86 Series cattle chute

Dana Charban

As a small town girl from rural Manitoba, Dana Charban grew up around agriculture and farming her en...

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