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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Healthy Animals 42

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Issue 42, July 2010
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Scientists Help Cattle Producers Protect Herds Against Summer Stresses

A healthy pig rests its snout on the back of another pig.

Research Briefs

Antibiotics in manure. ARS scientists are studying how oxytetracycline, an antibiotic that is administered to animals, breaks down in cattle manure.

Algae improves water quality. Algae-already being eyed for biofuel production-could be put to use right away to remove nitrogen and phosphorus in livestock manure runoff.

Organic poultry. Organic certification has been given to a poultry research facility operated by ARS in Fayetteville, Ark.

Fewer weeds, more cows. An online weed calculator developed by an ARS scientist tells ranchers the number of additional cows they could raise if they eliminated one or two widespread exotic invasive weeds.

Grazing on grouse habitat. ARS scientists in Oregon are taking a careful look at how grazing cattle affect sage-grouse habitat on high desert rangelands.

They look content, placidly grazing across a pasture or steadily crunching corn in dusty feed lots across the Central Plains, but if it's the middle of summer, cattle are well aware that the sun is blazing and the heat can be brutal.

Just like their human counterparts, cows don't need a weatherman to know when it's too hot. Most are sweating through extreme temperatures, much like their owners, looking for a cool spot in the shade to relieve heat stress.

Individual cows react differently to heat, but in the worst cases, livestock suffering from heat stress can lose their appetite or experience reduced rates of growth, making them more susceptible to illness or even death.

It might seem overly obvious to say that cattle need some kind of shade for protection from dangerous conditions, but a group of Agricultural Research Service (ARS) researchers wondered precisely how much shade is needed and what types of sun shelters would best meet the needs of animals and improve the bottom line for livestock producers.


The scientists' work has three main components: analyzing animal susceptibility to heat stress, identifying contributing environmental factors, and evaluating management techniques to combat the stress.

One study analyzed several factors that influence the sweating rate in different breeds of cattle. This is significant because cattle, like humans, sweat to keep cool. Results showed that coat color, wind speed, access to shade, and breed could influence an animal's physical response to heat.

For example, the scientists observed that Angus cattle adapted to conditions in Kansas had higher body temperatures than those adapted to conditions in Florida. Though genetically similar, the Kansas cattle also had a more erratic sweating rate, suggesting that the Florida cattle are better suited to warmer climates.

To create a more accurate model, ARS scientists Roger Eigenberg and Tami Brown-Brandl at the agency's Roman L. Hruska U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (USMARC) in Clay Center, Neb., worked with engineer John Nienaber to analyze weather data from significant heat waves and identify environmental factors that contributed to higher incidences of cattle stress.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln engineer David Jones and ARS agricultural engineer Tami Brown-Brandl study a heat stress model.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln engineer David Jones (left) and ARS agricultural engineer Tami Brown-Brandl developed a model that evaluates the characteristics of individual animals and produces an index value that reflects each one's susceptibility to heat stress.


The result was a heat stress model that incorporates predictions of temperature, humidity, sun intensity and wind speed. The model predicts when environmental conditions are particularly likely to cause heat stress, and presents the information in an easy-to-read, color-coded map that includes South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, western Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and northern Texas. It can be viewed online at http://www.ars.usda.gov/Main/docs.htm?docid=20426

Having more information about the potential benefits and disadvantages of stress-alleviation methods can help managers decide how to respond to dangerous heat situations, so the USMARC scientists have evaluated one of the more common management options, comparing the effectiveness of four commercially available shade materials to protect cattle raised in outdoor pens.

They found that all the materials reduced cattle stress, and the higher the percentage of solar radiation blocked by the shades, the more effective they were at reducing stress. Porous snow fence material was the least effective, providing some shade but allowing sunlight to still filter through, while shades made of solar radiation-blocking polyethylene cloth offered the most protection.

Still, all the shades offered some protection that could result in slower respiration rates and lower body temperatures—even the snow fence, which is less expensive than the other shades.

"Based on these results, we can conclude that erecting shades is indeed an effective method to reduce stress-related losses," Brown-Brandl says.

Research efforts like these have been essential for developing tools and management practices to help cattle producers beat the heat. And that's a relief not just for the cattle, but for the people who work with them as well.

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Tami Brown Brandl, Roger Eigenberg and John Nienaber all work at the USDA-ARS Roman L. Hruska U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Neb.

For more information about this research, contact Mark Boggess, leader of ARS National Program #101, Food Animal Production.


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ARS Animal Health Research Laboratories

Healthy Animals Archive

Last Modified: 7/27/2010