For cattle exposed to fire and smoke, health issues can range from acute burns and smoke inhalation requiring immediate treatment to more subtle, chronic or indirect threats that can present long-term challenges.

In the short term, producers need to focus on providing feed and water to affected herds while working with their veterinarians to treat or euthanize injured cattle. Kansas State University Extension veterinarian A.J. Tarpoff says that with the fires continuing, loss estimates are not available, but reports indicate high incidence of cattle deaths and injuries in affected areas.

In the immediate aftermath, Tarpoff says producers and veterinarians face a triage situation. Some cattle require immediate and humane euthanasia due to severe burns or lung damage. Others require treatment for their injuries and remaining cattle will benefit from close monitoring for fire-related health problems for several weeks.

Initial injuries often include burns to feet, legs, udders and testicles, Tarpoff says. Cattle also often sustain eye injuries or irritation due to heat or smoke, and even when those injuries are not severe, temporary blindness can result.

Cattle in burned areas often suffer damage to their airways from inhalation of hot air and/or smoke. In the short term, accumulation of fluids in the airways can lead to respiratory distress and death.

Over the next several weeks, cattle with less severe damage to their airways could become susceptible to secondary bacterial infections and respiratory disease. The same applies to skin burns that can become infected. Tarpoff also notes that the coronary band, just above the hoof, can sustain damage that later leads to loss of the hoof wall and severe laminitis.

Following discussions with veterinarians around the state, Kansas State University veterinarians A.J. Tarpoff and Dan Thomson say producers are facing questions on how to manage orphaned calves. “Their mothers may have been lost in the fire, have burned teats and udders that makes nursing extremely painful, or have been separated during the confusion. So we have some options with these calves.” Tarpoff says. Those options include:

1.       Foster calves onto other cows that are fit and have lost a calf.

2.       Make them into bucket calves if needed.

·         Ensure all calves have free choice access to clean water.

·         Feed two quarts of milk replacer twice daily until the calf can be weaned. Milk replacer should be at least 20% crude protein and 20% crude fat. Animal proteins are superior to vegetable sources of protein.

·         Begin offering calf starter feed after the calves are used to the bucket.

·         Feed should be at least 20% crude protein and 10% fat.

·         You can wean calves onto the starter feed after calves are eating two to three pounds of feed for two to three days in a row.

Tarpoff and Thomson also recommend closely checking bulls for injury. If their scrotums and genitals have been burned, semen retesting will be needed before they go back to work. 

Nutritional considerations

Justin Waggoner, PhD, a beef Extension specialist in southwest Kansas, says the fires have, in many cases, damaged windmills and pumps for supplying water sources.

“Here in the western part of the state, we rely very heavily on groundwater resources,” he says. “Most of our watering sites for cattle on native range are going to be some sort of developed well system, which might be powered by a windmill, or solar pump. The functionality of those after fires is going to be limited in some capacity.”

In cases where producers need to haul water to cattle, Waggoner says the rule of thumb is to provide 1 gallon of water per 100 pounds of body weight for non-lactating cows. “So for a 1,400 pound cow, 10-14 gallons of water per day is what it’s going to take to meet those requirements.”

Waggoner also notes that wheat pasture or crop residues could provide feed options, and hay-relief efforts may help producers feed their herds. An abrupt dietary switch to wheat pasture, however, may raise concerns about grass tetany. “One of the things we can do to alleviate that is to supply a high magnesium mineral in those situations. Magnesium absorption is linked to sodium. So if a high magnesium mineral is not available, having a good supply of salt out there – and making sure the cattle are consuming salt – will help magnesium absorption and help to alleviate those concerns,” Waggoner says.

After similar fires, Kansas State University veterinarian Dave Rethorst stressed that affected cattle will need energy and protein supplementation daily until green grass begins to return. “My recommendation is to back off what many producers are used to feeding, 40 percent protein cake formulations, and feed a 20 percent cake that has some energy in it,” Rethorst said.

Prevent chronic problems

Rethorst recommends considering antibiotic ointment on burned feet and udders to keep a secondary infection from occurring, he said. Death loss will likely happen due to respiratory problems from smoke inhalation, particularly in calves under a year old, just because their immune system might not be able to fight infection. “In some of these young cows, it will probably affect their lungs for life. There’s little that can be done for that. Pull and treat the individuals. Get the calves on a good vaccination program,” Rethorst says.

Texas A&M Extension beef cattle specialist Ted McCollum, PhD, says producers should have a veterinarian check injure cattle as soon as possible to prevent damaging infections and chronic problems. Health disorders such as burned eyes, feet, udders, sheaths and testicles, as well as smoke inhalation with lung inflammation and edema, are the most common problems, he says.

The fires came at a very inopportune time for ranchers who are beginning the calving season, McCollum adds. “We probably had a lot of calves that were laying out susceptible to the fire, as fast as it was moving across there,” McCollum says. “They had no place to go. Also there will be a lot of mothers with potentially scorched udders. The calves that survived won’t be able to suckle the mothers that have sore udders. Producers should be looking for bawling calves to provide replacement milk to or to sell to someone who can care for them.”

Impacts of the fire on animal health can persist over time. Following a previous wildfire, Texas veterinarians Glenn Rogers and Arn Anderson offered these tips.

·         Respiratory problems can be immediate or appear two weeks later due to stress and damage to the respiratory tract's natural immune system. Following the fire, wind-borne ash can lead to additional respiratory infections and irritation. 

·         In the weeks following a fire, veterinarians and producers could see abortions, starving calves due to udder damage and possibly loss of burned feet. “Field veterinarians should look for obvious burns and the largest treatment option is deep and immediate culling to get the cattle to a slaughter facility within 48 hours,” Anderson recommends. “This is very difficult and will initially cause a lot of client resistance but it is required if they want any income on the cattle.

·         If cows have fire-damaged teats, visible burns on the skin or feet they should be sent to slaughter immediately, prior to a fever spike. “Severely fire-damaged cattle should be humanely euthanized immediately,” Rogers says. Treatment for affected cattle deemed salvageable should include a long-acting broad spectrum antibiotic. 

·         Make treatment and euthanasia decisions as soon as possible. “This problem may be compounded by fire damage to handling facilities and fences, precluding the ability to administer treatment options or locate cattle in a timely manner,” Rogers says.

·         Damaged fencing likely has resulted in extensive comingling of neighboring herds, which could result in transmission of diseases such as trichomoniasis or bovine viral diarrhea (BVD). Producers should work with their veterinarians to assess their risk and implement appropriate testing and control programs.

·         Many of the pastures will be burned at very high temperatures and the ground will be sterilized. Native grass will return very slowly and nutrition and stocking rates need to be discussed.

Cattle with severe burns or lung damage might require humane euthanasia. Firearms generally provide the most convenient and effective method for euthanasia, but as always, safety is a key consideration. For information on a humane method, read “Un-Complicating Firearm and Captive Bolt Euthanasia” from BovineVetOnline.com. For some experience-based lessons on cattle euthanasia and general response after a natural disaster, read “Learning from Tragedy, also from BovineVetOnline.com.

Besides the effects on cattle, Colorado State University Extension veterinarian Regan Adams stresses the physical and emotional toll disasters such as these can take on people. CSU offers an excellent fact sheet providing advice and tips called “Coping with Natural Disasters.”