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High Plains farmers, ranchers reel from ‘unusual’ blizzard

cattle snow
Thousands of cattle estimated dead, and extent of wheat damage unknown.

Farmers and ranchers in the High Plains continue to assess damage and losses associated with a massive blizzard that pummeled the region this past weekend. Wheat and cattle markets surged this week as speculation swirled regarding the total impact of the storm, which will remain unknown for weeks.

The Weather Channel reported that Winter Storm Ursa brought crippling, destructive conditions from the Texas Panhandle to Nebraska, packing up to 70 mph winds, creating snow drifts of up to 8 ft. and leaving many regions with more than a foot of snow. While large snowstorms are common in the fall and spring, the Weather Channel said a storm this late in the season was “quite unusual.”

Many operations were dealing with power outages and struggling to get their cattle fed. Additionally, thousands of cattle throughout the affected regions strayed during the blizzard conditions. The storm was also expected to slow cattle gain and cause respiratory illness.

A spokesperson for the Kansas Livestock Assn. (KLA) said there are preliminary reports of death loss in both feeding facilities and pasture settings, but exact numbers will be difficult to collect. However, one report suggested that thousands of head of cattle were lost.

“Areas of western Kansas received 6-14 in. of snow, accompanied by north winds of 25 to 40 miles per hour, with gusts up to 60 miles per hour. Drifting caused extensive road closures and power outages, which hampered livestock producer efforts to keep cattle fed and watered,” the KLA spokesperson said.

Reports indicate that livestock drifted with the storm. Owners currently are working to locate the stray animals, he added.

Heather Lansdowne, communications director for the Kansas Department of Agriculture, said the agency is still getting in reports, so it is difficult to know any real numbers at this point.

“We know that there have been some deaths reported, and there is concern about pneumonia,” she added.

Lee Reeve, principal at Reeve Cattle Co. in Garden City, Kan., and president-elect of KLA, told Bloomberg that losses were the greatest among younger animals, and a feedlot with 80,000 head of cattle north of Garden City lost more than 1,000 animals.

“The storm came on so fast, and it was the heaviest snow I’ve ever seen,” said Reeve, who lost about 40 animals from his 43,000-head operation.

Oklahoma state representative Casey Murdock from Felt, Okla., said many producers in Cimarron and Texas counties are still finding dead cattle in snowdrifts. Texas County is the largest agricultural producing county in Oklahoma, and Cimarron is the third largest. One feedyard in Cimarron has a capacity of 110,000 cattle, with many more smaller-sized feedlots in the county.

A veterinarian in the affected area told Murdock that 2,000-3,000 head are estimated to be dead at this time. However, Murdock’s brother, who also owns a feedyard in the region, has lost 400 head. There are three other large feedyards in the area as well, he added.

“The thing with a blizzard is that the cattle are breathing in that snow. We are going to have respiratory issues — pneumonia — hitting those cattle in a week or two,” Murdock explained.

Temperatures were between 60 and 80°F, but once the storm hit, windchill temperatures were around 18°F, he said, adding that approximately 15-22 in. of snow fell.

Colorado appeared to be the hardest hit, with up to 25 in. of snow falling in some parts.

Recovery efforts continued Thursday for farmers and ranchers in Baca and Prowers counties of Colorado, where at least 400 head have already reportedly perished. The Colorado Farm Bureau said cattle deaths are likely in the thousands.

Wheat yield losses expected from storm, disease

On the Alec Horton farm in Leoti, Kan., about 40 miles from the state’s border with Colorado, wheat was still covered with snow on Wednesday, three days after the storm.

Despite the bleak conditions, Horton remains hopeful that much of the wheat crop can bounce back. The plant stems were green and pliable and could recover once the snow melts. There will be some wheat with broken stems that probably will not recover.

Most of Horton’s wheat was in the “boot” stage and had not yet produced a grain head, which may help with the recovery. Early this week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said 44% of the Kansas crop had headed, and those fields hit by the storm may be at a greater risk of damage.

“I felt devastated and sick to my stomach,” Horton said when he first saw the snow-covered fields immediately after the storm, “but driving around today and looking at the fields, it seems enough of it will bounce back so that we will harvest some wheat.”

While Horton expects some yield loss, he said it will be a week or more before accurate assessments can be made.

“It is wait and see. We just don’t know yet,” said A.J. Foster, the area agronomist for Kansas State University in Garden City, Kan. “One thing about wheat is you never bet against it.”

Working in the crop’s favor is the moisture the snow will provide. The melting snow should seep into the soil and aid the crop’s recovery, and forecasts call for warmer weather by this weekend. In addition, wheat plants have several stems, or tillers, and there is hope that the less-mature tillers will recover and produce grain.

“I think there is going to be some yield loss, but the question is how much. I think it will take at least a week to know,” said Lucas Haag, the northwest area agronomist for Kansas State University in Colby, Kan.

The snow is only part of the wheat’s problem. Much of the crop is western Kansas is infested with wheat streak mosaic, a viral disease that can hurt yields. The condition was detected in the fall and was apparent this spring.

“It is mostly in the western part of the state. We had a warm winter. The warm temperatures are conducive for the wheat curl mite, which spreads the disease,” Foster explained.

Low wheat prices had Kansas farmers planting fewer winter wheat acres last fall, but good moisture in late winter and early spring raised hopes for good yields. USDA in March reported that 7.5 million acres of wheat were planted in Kansas this year, down from 8.5 million a year ago and 9.2 million in 2015.

Before the storm, Kansas wheat was rated 52% good to excellent. That dropped to 49% the day after the storm, but more accurate condition ratings are expected in the coming weeks once the snow melts.

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