The first blog I ever wrote for CRYSTALYX® was about heat stress. My intro was filled with a lot of fluff about variation in the cattle business and a random statistic about the modern air conditioner. I’ll cut to the chase this go-around and just say it’s really hot, and for a lot of the country, it’s really dry. As we continue to contract in the beef cattle cycle, which is being accelerated by the worst drought in over a decade for some of the largest cattle-producing states in the country, signs of stronger calf and live cattle prices seem probable moving forward. Producers who are able to hang on over the next few years — easier said than done, I know — will hopefully be in a position to make some money. Managing heat stress during the summer months will be a critical component of getting your operation and your cattle through the tough times of today and into the greener pastures and stronger balance sheets of tomorrow.
To really understand heat stress, it’s important to have a basic grasp of a process called thermoregulation. Cattle naturally produce energy in the form of heat through a number of different bodily functions — primarily digestion. During the winter, the heat produced is used to raise cattle’s core body temperature, whereas in the summer, cattle dissipate the produced heat to lower their body temperature. When cattle are not able to dissipate enough heat to regulate their body temperature to around 101 degrees Fahrenheit, heat stress occurs.
Heat stress costs cattle producers roughly $350 million annually. A majority of those losses are concentrated in the feedlot sector of the beef complex, as heavier cattle in confinement are at a much higher risk of heat stress. However, cow-calf producers should still be acutely aware of the negative performance implications caused by heat stress. Outlined below are a couple of examples that I think drive home how heat stress hits your bottom line.
Reduced conception rates: It got hot early this year, right around the time when bulls were getting kicked out. A number of both beef and dairy studies show that heat stress in the summer months can reduce reproductive performance due to the increased likelihood of early embryonic death as a result of altered hormone production, impaired follicle development, the reduced intensity of estrus and decreased libido and semen quality in bulls. You can’t sell high-dollar calves if they aren’t on the ground.
Underutilization of our cheapest input — summer grass: When it gets hot, cattle’s grazing behavior changes dramatically. If they spend all day in the shade or ponds and not grazing, they are reducing their intake of standing forage and, in return, are reducing the production of energy used to generate milk for the calves on their side or condition to prepare them for winter and next year’s calving season. Hay is way too expensive to not get the most out of the grass that you have now, even if there’s not much of it.
While we can’t eliminate all of the risks associated with heat stress, producers can certainly implement management practices that help minimize its effects. It may seem obvious, but water and shade are by far the most important resources for managing heat stress.
Water: Intake of clean, cool water is the quickest way to lower cattle’s core body temperature. When temperatures rise above 90 degrees, a mature cow’s water intake can more than double, totaling up to 30 gallons a day. Keep an eye on your water quality as well. In these dry conditions, ponds and creeks are drying up quick. In extreme heat, smaller bodies of water can get stagnant in a hurry, especially with cattle standing in them for extended periods trying to cool off. While on the subject, keep an eye on cattle’s feet, as standing in water for long periods softens their hooves and can increase the incidence of foot rot and lameness.
Shade: I’m referring here to both the kind found under a tree and the kind found in a barrel (more on this in a second). Shade can reduce the ambient temperature by up to 40%, but a good rule of thumb is about 20–25 degrees Fahrenheit. There’s a reason that, during the summer, cattle spend most the day camped out in the coolest spots possible. Trees are the ideal source of shade, as they allow for adequate airflow, but anything that gets cattle out of the direct sunlight works.
A few more practical suggestions related to monitoring and helping with heat stress are outlined below.
- Plan all major workings, like pregnancy checks and pasture rotation, for as early as possible in the mornings, when temperatures are the coolest.
- Keep a close eye on cattle with a known history of respiratory illnesses. Cattle don’t sweat nearly as much as other species, so most of their heat is dissipated through respiration.
- Manage the fly population. Cattle with an intense load of flies are regularly seen gathered together, which reduces the air flow per animal unit. Plus, flies cost producers a ton of money through the spread of disease and blood loss. The horn fly alone costs the beef industry over a billion dollars annually in reduced performance. I highly recommend reading the blog “Beat the buzz this fly season” by CRYSTALYX® nutritionist Jill Peine.
- Make sure sound deworming and mineral programs are implemented, as both of these help cattle “slick-off” during the summer months.
- If it fits the goals of your operation, utilizing genetics that are more apt to handle the heat could prove to be cost-effective.
- Plan to feed cattle later in the day so that the heat generated from digestion is peaking during the coolest part of the night.
Introducing CRYSTALYX® Blueprint® Shade
I mentioned shade in a barrel, and I meant it. The new CRYSTALYX® Blueprint® Shade is a complete mineral program backed by our one-of-a-kind Blueprint® targeted nutrition program and contains a heat abatement technology called capsicum. Capsicum is a natural essential oil derived from the chili pepper and acts as a vasodilator. This simply means it can help “relax” the tiny muscles in blood vessel walls that allow blood to flow more easily through veins and arteries. Being able to keep blood flowing adequately throughout your cattle, primarily to the skin and the gut, is important for two reasons:
- In hot weather, cattle pump additional blood to the skin to dissipate heat. This leads to less blood flow to the gut, which can decrease digestive efficiency, essentially robbing Peter to pay Paul. Capsicum helps keep blood flowing to the skin while maintaining appropriate blood flow to the gut.
- Digestion is the primary biological function that generates heat. Naturally, during hotter periods, cattle decrease their feed intake to minimize the amount of heat being produced through digestion. The additional blood flow to the skin potentially improves grazing behavior, as cattle are simply more comfortable. Couple that with the improved digestion from the increased blood flow to the gut, and it all means that cattle are consuming and getting more out of the precious resource we call grass. Improving feed efficiency is always something to work toward.
Additionally, since fly populations are the most severe during the summer, we have recently added a CRYSTALYX® Blueprint® Shade formula with ClariFly®.
By combining the known benefits of “more calves, heavier calves and healthier calves” from our Blueprint® targeted nutrition program and the heat abatement properties of capsicum, there is a ton of performance to be served from CRYSTALYX® Blueprint® Shade. Reach out to your local CRYSTALYX® or Blueprint® dealer to get more information or visit our websites at CRYSTALYX.com and blueprintanimalnutrition.com.