Oppressive long-weekend weather leads to feedlot mortalities

Jon Condon, 29/01/2024

OPPRESSIVE weather conditions over the past week across Queensland and parts of NSW have led to a heat stress event causing the deaths of significant numbers of cattle in feedlots.

Beef Central is aware of significant deaths in at least five feedyards across the western Darling Downs, southern Darling Downs and South Burnett regions. It is likely that other yards in Queensland and parts of central and northern New South Wales have also been impacted.

Some yards have lost between 20 and 50 head, Beef Central understands. Deaths started on Saturday and continued into Sunday after a succession of sweltering summer days and nights.

Anecdotal evidence suggests British type cattle were the most seriously affected, especially those nearing the end of their feeding programs, or those that travelled north from southern breeding herds to feedlots either side of the Queensland border. Some yards took the highly unusual step over the weekend of opening the pen gates and moving cattle into surrounding grass paddocks, Beef Central was told.

At a typical value of say, $1500-$2000 a head, financial losses at some yards may well have exceeded $100,000.

Some of the mortality incidents were serious enough to require mandatory mortality reporting under the National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme requirements. NFAS regulations regarding trigger levels for level 3 reporting show that yards 1000 head or less must report when 17 head or more have been lost over a 24-hour period, rising to 60 head for yards housing 10,000 head.  More detailed information can be found in the NFAS Rules and Standards – Click here to view.

‘Perfect storm’

A ‘perfect storm’ involving high temperatures, high humidity and low wind-speed have combined to deliver the conditions that have led to the mortalities.

Relative humidity at the BOM recording station at Dalby reached as high as 97 percent and temperatures to 39C over the past few days, with wind-speeds averaging as low as 7km/hour for periods this past week.

As anybody watching the test cricket on TV on the weekend would have seen, Brisbane and surrounding regions was sweltering under unusually hot conditions from late last week, with players regularly stopping to re-load with electrolytes and water.

On top of day-time conditions, unusually warm night-time temperatures added to the feedlot livestock burden.

“Cattle normally use cooler evening temperatures, without the radiation, to dissipate heat – but unusually high night time temperatures of 28-30 degrees late last week didn’t allow that to happen,” one well-informed grainfed industry stakeholder told Beef Central.

He said appetite of all cattle on feed had been compromised during the heatload event.

“But nobody was caught by surprise by this event,” he said.

“Everyone was taking appropriate management measures, and as the conditions worsened, they ramped-up levels of intervention. All feedlots did as much as they could to avoid the unfortunate loss of life, but these were exceptional circumstances. They were throwing everything at this event to try to make those cattle as comfortable as possible.”

While the stock losses recorded over the weekend were serious, the grainfed industry’s sophisticated and detailed heat stress management plans have clearly prevented much greater loss of life.

Veterinarians, nutritionists and feedlot managers have worked hard as summer has approached to prepare for heat stress events, should they occur.

All feedlots use sophisticated local weather monitoring technology that deliver warnings when combined heat-load factors (air temperature, humidity, wind speed) reach trigger points.

Daytime temperatures and humidity have now moderated somewhat, suggesting the worst has now passed. However large parts of Queensland are forecast to receive more rainfall in coming days (see today’s separate rainfall wrap).

“Without the preparation and planning that has taken place, the mortalities on the weekend would have been far larger,” the feedlot contact said. “There is a very strong, well thought-out system in place to manage extreme weather events like this.”

ALFA’s response

Beef Central asked the Australian Lot Feeders Association for a comment, receiving the following statement from president, Barb Madden:

This has been an unusually prolonged and severe heatwave with high humidity and warm nighttime temperatures that has posed major challenges for both human and animal health.

Highlighting the severity of the hot climatic conditions we have been dealing with, ALFA has been notified of six heat load events in Queensland involving approximately 320 cattle that have succumb to the extreme weather.

We are saddened by the loss of these cattle and our sympathies are with the impacted feedlot businesses and their staff. They are experienced livestock people who work tirelessly to look after the cattle under their care every single day and especially during challenging weather events.

The immediate priority for ALFA has been to work with the impacted businesses and the broader lot feeding industry to deliver the highest welfare outcomes for livestock, as well as looking after the wellbeing of their staff.

All feedlots that are accredited with the National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme must have a Heat Load Management Plan that includes stringent mitigation strategies and contingency plans for dealing with heat load events. The feedlots involved are continuing to respond in accordance with these procedures, and importantly are engaging with their consulting veterinarians and nutritionists to ensure the best possible animal welfare outcomes.

Despite the very challenging circumstances we believe the lot feeding industry as a whole has performed well in preparing and responding to this heatwave. With more hot summer temperatures expected our message is for operators is to continue to follow their Heat Load Management Plan and stay alert for weather warnings, be aware of heat stress signs and continue to prepare as best as we can. It also never hurts to consider a check-in with your consulting vet or nutritionist.

As per industry protocol when a higher-level incident is triggered, we are staying in close contact with the Chief Veterinary Officer of the Queensland Government and the RSPCA. Once the weather event has passed a post-incident review will also be undertaken with the aim of furthering strengthening our approach to heat load events.

ALFA will continue to closely monitor the situation and communicate with impacted feedlots and stakeholders.








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  1. Hayati Koknaroglu, 03/02/2024

    I am working on an early warning app for heat stress related feedlot mortality. For this purpose, can you please provide me the location and exact time when mortality happened? In this case I can go and get weather data and try to understand underlying reasons and come up with a threshold point. Your help would be appreciated.

    We’d suggest using Bureau of Meteorology weather data from sites at Dalby, Condamine, Chinchilla and Proston. Mortalities started to occur the week before, but most happened on the long weekend of 26-28 January. High nighttime temperatures 28-30C contributed to the problem, we were told. Editor

  2. Peter Vincent, 31/01/2024

    Not all feedlot pens are equipped with meaningful shade. Was there any correlation between unshaded pens and deaths?

    Our inquiries showed there were significant deaths in yards with shaded pens. In fact all the yards we’re aware of that lost cattle (there may have been others) had shade infrastructure. Editor

  3. Peter Austin, 31/01/2024

    Just a thought wondering if any feedlots are useing large fans that can get air moving in radius of 100 to 150 metres ,these are extensively used in the horticulture industry for frost protection .Can be fixed and also towable .

  4. Sue Francis, 30/01/2024

    And still, the Australian beef industry focusses on the coat colour LEAST able to handle heat. Wake up MLA and industry.
    Is someone ever going to be ballsy enough to realize the “lucky” or “national” colour of Japan ie black, that the Japanese feedlot owners demanded be the only colour in the feedlots they owned, is NOT the most suitable colour for cattle in Australian conditions?!!!!

  5. Don Stewart, 30/01/2024

    Why are there so many cattle in feedlots when there is oceans of grass. ?

    Part of the explanation is that most cattle on feed in Australia are now committed to long-term grainfed brand programs with regular export and domestic customers. It’s simply not possible to turn the tap off, just because it’s rained. Editor

  6. JULIE BULLER, 29/01/2024

    Studies have shown that lighter coated cattle such as Murray Greys, perform 20% better in feedlots in hotter environments compared with black coated cattle.

  7. Wallace Gunthorpe, 29/01/2024

    Plenty of shade and Brahman cattle is the answer!

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