National Guard Begins 'Haylift' for Stranded Cattle
SCOTT SIMON, host:
Now, while we're basking in unseasonably warm weather here in Washington, D.C., back-to-back blizzards have paralyzed much of the American plains. In Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma, tens of thousands of people are without power, and the storms have left whole herds of cattle without food and the danger of freezing to death.
Many of the animals have been trapped by snow drifts as high as housetops, some since last Friday. National Guardsmen and volunteers began a haylift yesterday, dropping feed to thousands of stranded cattle in an effort to avoid a repeat of 1997, when a blizzard killed several thousand head of cattle in Colorado.
Warren Gill is here to tell us more about the dangers these animals face. He's a professor of animal science at the University of Tennessee. He joins us from Nashville. Professor Gill, thanks very much for being with us.
Professor WARREN GILL (Animal Science, University of Tennessee): Well, thank you for having me on.
SIMON: It is distressing to learn that some of these animals have been out there since Friday. How much cold and lack of food can they withstand?
Prof. GILL: Well, cattle, they're marvelous animals. I'm a big cattle specialist with the University of Tennessee, and have enjoyed and studied cattle for really most of my career. And if there's an animal that's equipped to take this stress, it's cattle.
That's not to diminish the dire straits these animals are in right now, and I'm sure we're worried. Everybody's worried, and - but they, because of several mechanisms that they have that we don't have, they can take it.
SIMON: You mean like two stomachs, or what?
Prof. GILL: Technically, I guess there are four chambers in the stomach, and in one of those chambers is the rumen. And the rumen is just a marvelous adaptation, probably in the range of 35 to 40 gallons of material - hay and water and supplement that's in there. And the bacteria that digest - the fiber that makes up the forage, every time it takes a little bite of fiber, it creates some heat. So we have about 102 degrees, 103 degrees inside that rumen, as long as the hay is maintained.
You mentioned the hay drops. That's the marvelous thing about getting some hay to these cattle. If they can keep that rumen full of hay, they have a fighting chance.
SIMON: So when we see a cow chewing cud, they're not just flapping their gums. It's a way of keeping warm.
Prof. GILL: The chewing of the cud is rumination. You know, that's the technical term for it, and it's a very important part of this whole strategy that cattle have for eating grass and hay. And when you get into a cold-weather situation like those cattle in Colorado are in, it's part of the strategy. The chewing of the cud breaks down that fiber, allowing access of the bacteria and protozoa to digest that and to release more hay, more heat.
SIMON: Do cattle have an instinct for survival?
Prof. GILL: Very good question, because they have a strong instinct. The one thing - research has shown that they can sense when one of these weather events, these cold-weather fronts are coming. They'll eat a lot more hay in advance. They know it's coming, and so they'll fill up.
This gives you hope for these cattle in Colorado, because they will eat more. They'll create more heat, and it will allow them to go further into a cold spell. And actually, during a cold spell itself, part of their survival mechanism first of all is to find a way out of the wind, the, you know, direct wind, and if they can stay dry - they have a good hair coat, plus a very warm under-hair coat.
And so if they can stay dry, out of the wind, and they'll do their best to do that, then that will help them in this whole strategy.
SIMON: So they look for - they look for a plot of land behind a plateau or something that might cut the wind?
Prof. GILL: Trees, a barn, anything that'll cut the direct wind.
SIMON: I wonder. We're talking about the dangers they might face in freezing or starving to death. Are there any dangers out there that we're overlooking?
Prof. GILL: Well, one danger is lack of water. Water is a very important part of this deal, and unless, you know - they can - they're good at conserving water, but, you know, that's one thing is I would look at the magnificent efforts that are going on in Colorado.
I wonder if they're getting enough water. You know, that's the thing. And then to me, another worry is the danger to the calves. You know, these young animals…
SIMON: The calves, yeah.
Prof. GILL: …don't have quite as much - they don't have as big a rumen. They don't have the fat covering. You know, I think that's a big worry to me.
SIMON: Professor Gill, it's been so enlightening. Thank you. We've learned a lot in just these few minutes. Thanks very much for spending some time with us.
Prof. GILL: Thank you for having me.
SIMON: Warren Gill is a professor in the department of animal science at the University of Tennessee, joining us from his office in Nashville. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.