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Dispatches from the present


Heat Stress


June in southwest Kansas began with mild temperatures, forties and fifties at night, sixties and seventies during the day. For months there had been very little rain. Then rain came, and with it humidity. Wind dropped. On June 11th, temperatures surged past one hundred degrees. Beef cattle couldn’t acclimate to the sudden changes, and in a couple days more than seven thousand head—just under two percent of the population, each valued roughly two thousand dollars—dropped dead of heat stroke. The percentage was small enough that the beef supply was not seriously affected. But after footage of the carcasses went viral on multiple TikTok videos, conspiracy theories, about the U.S. government, about Bill Gates, about aliens, abounded. Tera Barnhardt, DVM, MS, a consulting veterinarian who oversees the health of 250,000 head of cattle in southwest Kansas, talks about what happened on those days.

—Molly Montgomery

Much like a blizzard, we had to handle what we were given. We didn’t really have a lot of warning. I had a baby on June 10th, so I was in the hospital on June 11th, and that was when it got so hot outside. And I remember thinking to myself, “Thank goodness I’m no longer pregnant. What a terrible day to be pregnant.” I looked outside as the temperatures rose that day, and I looked at the flagpole that is out in the front of our hospital. And the United States flag, it was not flying at all. It was laying still against the pole. It was not even rustling in the wind. As soon as that happened, I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is going to be a disaster.”

So immediately I start calling and talking to my farm managers and the owners. Unfortunately, the damage was done, because the cattle got really hot that day. They’re ruminant animals, so they literally ferment their food and so that creates a lot of heat in itself. All we’re looking and praying for is a night it would get cool. If it cools off at night, they can dissipate their heat overnight, and then they wouldn’t be hurt so bad. But if they can’t dissipate their heat overnight, the next day will be a disaster. Really it’s worse than a blizzard, because you can see it coming. It’s like watching a tornado run into your home.

What we call heat abatement plans were put in place at that point. We basically offer bedding, increased water and encouraging different behavior of the cattle, like pulling them away from the feed bunk. We actually reduced how much feed we gave them, just so we weren’t pushing them, metabolically, to be athletic. The next day I did go out to some of my yards, despite my doctor’s recommendations. I just wanted to drive out there. I work with those people every day. And my heart was breaking because I knew they were going to be up against some really bad things, and I wanted to make sure we were doing everything we could. That morning, the 12th, was when we started finding dead animals at the feed yard.

We were asking people—in conditions that are really, really terrible—to work different, very labor-intensive jobs: putting out all that bedding, putting out all those water tanks. That’s not what the workers typically do on a daily basis. And now all of a sudden: “Hey, you have your normal job, and then we need you to do this as well, and it’s 110 out. Best of luck, here’s some Gatorade…” But then, to see the amount of resources and labor—they know how much work they’ve put into it, they’ve known these cattle their entire lives, since they’ve been at the feed yard. We have such high respect for these animals, because we know they’re going to feed Americans. It just takes the wind out of your sails to see it end before going to the slaughter. You would rather know that they went on to feed people.

Most of our guys, they don’t want to lose any customers’ faith. They’re typically very tough and gruff, and now they’re very vulnerable. It’s hard when social media goes crazy and people have their own thoughts on what’s going on. They see a video of dead cattle and are like, “Oh my gosh, did aliens attack? What happened, why is this so severe?” But we were clinically able to diagnose heat stress in multiple ways, it wasn’t just, “Okay, we showed up and there’s dead cattle.” We ended up seeing cattle that were really stressed, that were breathing with their mouths open to try to get as much oxygen as possible, that were extending their neck to try to get as much as they could as far as air movement in their own bodies. The video that got put out on TikTok [of the carcasses] is awful to watch. But I know that feed yard, and I know how many cattle they have on feed, and I might even look at that video and go, “Wow, they saved a lot of cattle. That could have been worse.”

I put out a Facebook post to try to dispel some of the conspiracy theories that I was seeing on social media. I didn’t quite realize it would get the viral traction that it got, and then I really didn’t expect for conspiracy theorists to come out of the woodwork. There were just hundreds of people in the comments, posing questions and posing potential theories. We’ve removed consumers from how food is produced, and they’ve lost all the context that makes something like this not scare a person like me. Most of our farmers will not be devastated by this. It could cause them to be not profitable this year, and so next year they’re really going to need things to look good to remain in business. But they’re probably not going to be so hurt that they won’t raise cattle next year.

Several people commented on my post, “How much is the government paying her? She didn’t even go to veterinary school.” It was just a hard a thing to communicate through. There was so much mistrust and flat-out ugliness. You’re emotionally raw from the event, but then people forget that their words can hold weight, and that their words end up landing on a person. There’s a person attached.

When I started veterinary school, around 2010, there was an event just like this in a part of Kansas near Great Bend. It was a similar percentage to what we dealt with in Haskell and Grant County, under two percent of the cattle on feed. Just nobody had TikTok back then. Isn’t that crazy to think? Not that long ago, and if it didn’t go on social media it was something we dealt with in Kansas and nobody noticed it.