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Extreme heat and humidity kill thousands of cattle in Kansas

Cattle in Herington, Kan. (Christopher Smith for The Washington Post)

Thousands of cattle in Kansas have died in recent days due to high heat and humidity, dealing a blow to one of the country’s leading cattle production states as the industry grapples with extreme weather and rising production costs linked to the war in Ukraine.

At least 2,000 cattle are known to have died as of Tuesday, a spokesman for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment said, according to Reuters. That tally was based on the number of requests the agency received to help dispose of carcasses, he said.

With more than 6.5 million cattle raised in the state, Kansas has the third-largest cattle farming industry in the nation, behind Texas and Nebraska.

During the past month, the national drought tracker has released two statements warning that the northwestern and north-central regions of Kansas face drought conditions. Eight counties received extreme drought warnings.

Temperatures spiked over the weekend to more than 100 degrees in many parts of the state, sending animals into heat stress, according to data from Kansas State University. High humidity levels and a lack of cooling wind compounded the heat and helped create a punishing environment for cattle.

A high of 100 degrees is expected to last at least through Friday, but stronger winds and lower humidity could cut down on cattle deaths, agricultural meteorologist Drew Lerner told Reuters.

“It’s going to be oppressively hot and stressful for the animals,” Lerner added.

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Economic fallout from the war in Ukraine has reverberated across the world, affecting industries that depend on key Russian and Ukrainian agricultural products. The price of beef, pork and poultry has risen significantly in the United States, in part because animal feed such as corn accounts for 60 percent of the cost associated with raising livestock. Ukraine is one of the world’s largest corn producers.

Scientists have also drawn a connection between heat stress among livestock and climate change. In March, a peer-reviewed study written by an international group of researchers concluded that the global cattle farming sector may lose between $15 billion and $40 billion each year by the end of the century, depending on levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

Beef and dairy production in the United States is projected to decline 6.8 percent before the next century, according to the authors, though losses were likely to disproportionately affect farmers in the tropic regions of South America, Africa and Asia.