California's Dairy Cows Suffering in Heat Wave

California's farm animals are suffering as temperatures hit record highs this summer in the state's Central Valley. Production of milk in California, the number-one dairy producer in the nation, is down by as much as 15 percent. Sasha Khoka of member station KQED reports.

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Record high temperatures across the nation have been taking a toll on people and on livestock. Cattle have been dying from the intense heat, dairy cows producing less milk. That is bad news for California's more than 2,000 dairies. California produces more milk than any other state in the country. Sasha Khoka of member station KQED reports now on ways that farmers in the Central Valley are trying to keep their cattle cool.

SASHA KHOKA reporting:

California's dairy organizations don't have an exact count, but they know thousands of cattle have died in the recent heat wave. The plants that render the carcasses have been so backed up that several Central Valley counties have declared local emergencies, allowing farmers to bury carcasses rather than haul them off to a plant.

(Soundbite of cow mooing)

KHOKA: Temperatures climbed to 112 degrees on Donny Rawlins'(ph) Fresno County farm and he has 1550 hot cows on his hands. Cows don't sweat, so the only way to cool them down is to spray them down. Rawlins has installed some soakers, a kind of sprinkler system that spurts cool water onto the cow's backs every few minutes.

Mr. DONNY RAWLINS (Dairy Farmer): I'm sure that they're feeling every bit as miserable as we are when we're running around in the sun. We're trying to provide some shade for them so that first of all they've got a cooler place to go, and our barns are designed to let some air flow so that we can get some water on their backs and then the heat evaporates off their back.

KHOKA: Rawlins has also just installed new fans in his milking parlor where workers whistle to beckon the cows to the milking machine.

(Soundbite of whistling)

KHOKA: When cows get too hot they don't eat very much, they don't breed as much and they don't produce as much milk. Many California dairies are losing up to a gallon per day per cow. That can add up to 10 to 15 percent of the dairy's total output. Farmer's like Rawlins are losing thousand of dollars each day.

Mr. RAWLINS: Right now we're experiencing some fairly low milk prices, so we'd like to maximize our milk production. And in this kind of heat we're not able to do that. So bottom line is, you're forced to live on some equity for awhile.

KHOKA: And that's true of farmers across the nation. Dairies in the Midwest and East Coast are also coping with losses. But industry experts say consumers won't see much of a price change at the supermarket, unless the heat wave lasts for a very long time. For now, farmers like Donny Rawlins are just doing all they can to keep their cows cool and healthy.

Mr. RAWLINS: If there's anything that we could do for them it would be definitely to buy them all Icees. I just don't think we could afford all the syrup.

KHOKA: For NPR News, I'm Sasha Khoka in Fresno.

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