Heat Wave Kills 10,000 Head of Kansas Cattle

Heat Wave Kills 10,000 Head of Kansas Cattle

Can the Beef Industry Avoid Unnecessary Suffering?

Unnecessary death is always heartbreaking. This is especially true when there is suffering involved. Worse yet is when such deaths could have been avoided. 

Earlier this month, reports came out of Kansas that cattle ranchers had lost thousands of cattle in a matter of days, all due to heat stress. An initial report from National Public Radio (NPR) placed the number of deaths at over 2,000. However, subsequent reports, such as that by Progressive Farmer magazine, put the Kansas cattle death toll at over 10,000 head.


The discrepancy in the death tally has to do with how the data is reported. The early NPR figure was supplied by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. However, the agency prefaced that those numbers only reflect the losses at farms that have requested help disposing of the carcasses. Many ranchers deal with disposal themselves, thus their losses don’t get tallied.

At the time the department issued its early numbers, Matt Lara, communications director, fully expected the actual figures to end up being higher. By the following week, death toll figures from other media sources like Progressive Farmer put the count at over 10,000 head. The magazine is owned by DTN, a Minnesota-based company specializing in real-time analysis of weather, agriculture, energy, and commodity market information.

According to AJ Tarpoff, an expert interviewed by Progressive Farmer for the article “Thousands of Cattle Reported Dead”, cattle deaths attributed to heat stress is something that happens every June.

Tarpoff is a veterinarian who works with Kansas State University Extension. He observes that history shows a dramatic spike in heat-related deaths among both feedlot and grazing cattle every second week in June.


One reason cattle are more prone to heat-related deaths has to do with their winter coat. Tarpoff explains that while cattle have proven to have the ability to adapt to different climates, such adaptation isn’t instantaneous.

In the case of being susceptible to high heat marks in early June, it is partly because the cattle have not yet shed their winter hair coat. This causes them to retain heat. The fact that the majority of these cattle are black is also a factor. The color black attracts heat.

According to a statement from PETA, it is likely that the 10,000 head of cattle that died during the early June heatwave in Kansas did so while suffering horrifically. “Slow and painful” is how PETA describes the recent deaths.


The way heat affects cattle is different than the way it affects humans. Cattle absorb the sun’s heat during the day, then during the evening when temperatures have cooled, their body dissipates the heat over the course of four to six hours. 

The key, though, is that the evening temperature has to be cool enough to allow the cows’ bodies to release the heat that has built up. If evening temperatures remain high and with little or no wind, the heat is never released from the cows’ bodies. Instead of entering the next day without any stores of heat in their bodies, these cattle begin the day with a heat load already at maximum capacity.

In the case of the recent Kansas deaths, the state began recording temperatures over 100°F on June 11. By June 13, temperatures were peaking at 104°F; humidity levels were registering at ranges up to 35%.

Temperatures remained high throughout the evenings as well. It was too hot for the heat to dissipate from the cows. Without human intervention to alleviate the situation, the cattle’s fate was sealed. Death was imminent.


The cause of death for these 10,000 head of cattle was heat stress caused by unabated exposure to 100°F heat over a multiple period of days. However, the deaths were avoidable. For one thing, the cows were without means of shelter from the blazing sun. Temperature readings from soil four inches below the surface still registered over 92 °F. This indicates how severe the temperatures above ground were. It’s no surprise the cattle died.

To prevent this kind of mass death again in subsequent years, ranchers will have to have a reaction plan in place. This may include erecting temporary shelters from the sun, or relocation of the animals to an area where the effects of the sun would be less severe. Providing additional water sources is also encouraged.

The cooling off period at night is the most important piece of the puzzle. One fairly easy, yet effective, solution is to use a sprinkler system to cool the floor of the feedlot throughout the evening. This will ensure that temperatures will drop low enough for the heat to be released from the cows.

Of course, a reaction plan is of little use if ranchers ignore the signs of heat stress in their herds. Protruding tongues and heavy breathing are two obvious signs that cattle are in distress.


In an interview with television station KAKE, Scarlett Hagins of the Kansas Livestock Association, estimated that each of the 10,000 cattle had a market value of around $2,000 each. That makes the recent loss for Kansas cattle ranchers at around $20,000,000.  According to Hagins, there may be some federal disaster programs that could come into play.

The estimated price tag for the dead animals indicates that they were near ready for slaughter. The cows had been fattened up, as is typical in the final stages before going to be processed. That extra layer of fat may be good for the flavor of the beef, but it also contributes to the high number of June deaths that happen every year. It increases their chance of heat stress because they retain more heat.

Could this indirectly raise beef prices? Possibly... We won't know the severity of this tragedy until couple of months down the road. Stay updated with Bulk as we keep bringing you more meat related news. 

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