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Environment & Science

Ranchers Not Cowed By Negative Temperatures

The Montana Department of Livestock is investigating bovine tuberculosis after three diagnoses with potential connections to Montana herds.
Cattle on Weston Merrill's family ranch

Montana saw a week’s worth of negative temperatures across the state this month.

YPR’s Kayla Desroches sat down with reporter Sarah Brown, who covers agriculture for the Prairie Star and produces Field Days for YPR, to talk about what that means for ranchers in the state.

Kayla Desroches: Based on the rancher I did speak to, it sounds like they have to be on top of feed and water during drops in temperature like the one we’ve had recently.

Sarah Brown: Those are the two main things that ranchers have to deal with when the weather gets really cold. The first is with each degree drop in temperature below freezing, cattle energy requirements increase by one percent. So, if temperatures are 20 to 30 degrees below freezing, livestock will need 20 to 30 percent more energy to maintain their weight.

That is actually not a huge deal at the moment because ranchers had just a bumper crop of forage this summer. They had great conditions and they were really able to replenish their hay supplies, so they're not running short. They're feeding more, but they have it to feed, so it's not a huge issue right now.

As for water, cattle need water all the time. They drink gallons and gallons of it every day and so if you don't have a water source that's running, like access to a stream or a river, then you have to have these types of water which sit and freeze, and so ranchers, when you talk to them in the winter and you say, ‘Hey, what have you been up to?’ the first thing you hear is ‘Chopping ice. I've been chopping ice.’

KD: What's the priciest thing for ranchers during cold spells like this one?

SB: Montana's billion dollar livestock industry actually relies on harvested forages, and they are the single largest cost to ranching operations, and to make it through a winter here in the northern plains with their long periods of snow cover and poor quality range, producers need to lay just many, many months’ worth of hay.