A massive and extended winter blast has engulfed the southern plains before spreading across much of the Delta and mid-south then ultimately affecting most of the eastern half of the country. The extended cold temperatures began a week ago with most of Oklahoma already enduring continuous sub-freezing temperatures for 150 to over 200 hours as of Monday morning (February 15). Temperatures in early week are reaching record sub-zero levels with wind chill values of -25 to -30 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures are expected to remain below freezing for at least another 100 hours. Snow totals of four to ten inches have accumulated with more snow expected mid-week. This storm is unprecedented in Oklahoma due to both the record cold temperatures and the duration of cold. I’m having flashbacks to my formative years caring for cattle in Montana winters.
The brunt of the storm impacts are directly borne by cattle producers who are struggling to provide water and feed access for cattle. These conditions require near continuous efforts to chop ice and provide feed. Cattle nutritional requirements are sharply boosted in this weather and producers must consider both the quantity and quality of feed. Cattle will not be physically able to consume enough medium to low quality hay to provide sufficient energy in these conditions and must receive additional supplement or high quality hay. In some cases, deep snow may prevent cattle from accessing standing forage, especially since Oklahoma cattle are not used to foraging through snow.
If there is a silver lining in this storm, it is that conditions are cold but relatively dry. The snow that has fallen has not, for the most part, penetrated the hair coat of cattle keeping the hide dry. With adequate feed and water, cattle can handle this type of cold weather relatively well. These conditions are more typical of the central and northern plains and Rocky Mountain areas. Areas south and east of Oklahoma are receiving rain and ice ahead of snow, producing more dangerous hypothermia conditions typical of winter storms in the south.
This storm is likely ahead of most calving in Oklahoma but if calving is in progress, the extreme cold is a significant risk. Newborn calves can experience frozen ears and tails, marking them for life as a cold weather survivor. These calves are frequently discounted at marketing due to buyer fears of foot damage and other injuries that may impact the calves later in life. Once calves are dry and feeding they can endure the cold, dry weather pretty well and may, in fact, be insulated by dry fluffy snow when bedded down.
Several auction markets in Oklahoma and other areas closed last week and many will be closed this week. Oklahoma feeder cattle prices dropped three to ten percent last week with lower demand more than offsetting sharply reduced sales volumes. Wheat pasture cattle and other stockers are no doubt experiencing reduced gains or even weight loss in these conditions. Many cattle grazing dual-purpose wheat will need to be removed and marketed in the next two to three weeks, very likely a bit lighter in weight than expected.
Feedlot cattle are no doubt impacted as well and the market effects will be apparent over time. Reduced performance will show up as lower carcass weights in the coming weeks. The residual impacts of this historic weather event will likely effect cattle markets for several weeks.
(Derrell S. Peel is a livestock marketing specialist for Oklahoma State University.)