Drought, Fires and Smoke; Livestock Management Tips

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The ongoing drought has many livestock producers wondering what their next step will be. Graham County is now in a D-4 extreme drought classification. Wildfires just add to the complications with poor air quality due to lingering smoke. While people can go indoors or wear masks to filter the air, livestock have nowhere to escape the smoke. Sometimes fire retardants are used to suppress fires that can be harmful to livestock if ingested. Many farmers have been feeding winter hay for some time and others are starting now. This leaves the farmer questioning if they have enough hay to make It through the winter.

Probably the biggest concern for livestock producers is getting herds through the winter. Long and mid-range forecasts are not calling for much rain through the end of November into December. It looks like by the time significant rain does fall, it will be too cold for grass to recover before next spring. In other words, what you have now is probably the best pasture conditions you will have till spring. Extension Livestock Specialist Matt Poore has released some feed calculators to help producers determine if they have enough hay or feeds to make it through the winter. It is critical that farmers with livestock determine how much hay or other feeds they will need to make it through the winter and to obtain it soon. Because drought has also impacted Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama we expect a shortage of hay and anticipate that hay will eventually have to be shipped in from long distances.

To determine how much hay is needed farmers need to inventory the number of animals they have and their average weight. Then they need to determine how much hay they have on hand, and their expected shortage that they need to be shopping for. Cooperative Extension Livestock Agents have the ability to work with farmers to determine their hay needs and to help them locate hay or alternative feeds that can be purchased. When hay is not available it is possible to feed silage or concentrate feeds, but they require different management, so again ask your agent for help.

There are several tools that can be used to locate hay and other feeds including the Hay Alert website maintained by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (www.ncagr.gov/hayalert). This website can be used to advertise hay for sale and producers can also use it to advertise that they need hay. There also are listings of trucking companies available to help move hay. If you need help using this tool your Cooperative Extension Livestock Agent can also help you with that.

The USDA service center has the ongoing Livestock Forage Disaster Program (LFP). Since we have been reclassified to a D-4 drought, livestock producers that sign up can get maximum payments to help compensate grazing losses. Call the USDA service center at 828-837-2721 to enroll or for more information.

Cattle constantly breathing heavy smoke can have detrimental health effects. When fires are very close and livestock are in the path of the fire they should be moved to a shelter area and many of those have been set up at fairgrounds and other public facilities around the region. If the fires are not very close, then the effect of smoke on them is dependent on how long they are exposed and how thick the smoke is. The smoke will cause them to have irritation in the eyes and the respiratory system, and the best way you can help with that is to make sure they have access to plenty of high quality drinking water. Exposure to smoke can stress the respiratory system to the point that it turns into respiratory disease even several weeks after exposure, so keep a close eye on the livestock for at least several weeks to allow them to recover. Oftentimes, moving cattle or stressing them in any way increases their respiration rate and can cause more problems than it helps, so that should be avoided unless there is a direct danger of them getting caught in fire.

Fire retardants contain water, fertilizer, thickeners and other minor components including surfactants, bactericides, stabilizers and corrosion inhibitors. These fire retardants have been extensively tested to make sure they are safe for humans and the environment including wildlife. The major concern would be poisoning from non-protein nitrogen (the fertilizer component) and it would take a high intake of the material to cause that problem. Producers need to move cattle from areas with significant visible fire retardant, but should not be concerned about pastures with a visibly low level of this material.

If you are concerned with smoke or fire retardants impacting the health of your livestock, if you think fires are getting close to you, or if you need help with other problems being caused by the drought contact your local Cooperative Livestock Extension Agent.