This month’s At The Grill feature by William Torres (storyteller, empathetic connector and resonate catalyst) talks about wildfire season and how cattle can be mitigating factors.
Did you know that Alberta had 1,246 wildfires in 2022? Where 61% of them were human-caused, 38% lighting caused, and 1% under investigation.
As I was preparing for this article, I thought I’d give some advice about the “upcoming fire season” only to realize that we have already had 27 wildfires in Alberta, 11 in the last seven days alone.
But what do wildfires have to do with cattle you ask? Over the last several years, wildfires on agricultural lands have increased, causing damage to orchards, crops, livestock, and farm infrastructure. Outside of the direct flames, smoke damages crop quality, such as grapes used in wine production. Agricultural areas with irrigated crops are often viewed as being safety buffers during wildfires. However, in the last decade, wind-driven heat from surrounding wildfires has burned into some surprisingly well-irrigated crops. Smoke inhalation also has a negative effect on circulating immune cells, which can hinder the respiratory system, the first defence against smoke inhalation.
A factor called Temperature Humidity Index (THI) is a single value that represents the combined effects of air temperature and humidity associated with the thermal level of stress. According to Dr Julia Herman from the NCBA Beef Quality Assurance program, “THI compounds the effects of wildfire smoke. There can be negative impacts on metabolism, milk production, and immune system function when cattle are exposed to either or both wildfire smoke and high THI.”
There are very few peer-reviewed articles on wildfire effects on cattle, particularly in Western Canada. But do we really need to spend research money and grants to understand that they are not good for the cattle? I mean, if we humans can see and feel the effects, what makes anyone think that livestock are exempt?
Go ahead… ask any producer who has experienced either a wildfire or fled from one with their livestock. They won’t paint a pretty picture. The stress of rounding up livestock is bad enough under normal circumstances. Add chaos, wildfire smoke and high THI, and they will be the ingredients for a mess to come. If you ever must deal with the above-mentioned situations, pay attention to signs of respiratory irritation, such as coughing, fast or heavy breathing, and general signs of illness such as droopy ears or discharge from nose or eyes. Remember to limit exercise and unnecessary movements of the animals, practise low-stress handling and keep water sources clean.
So… what can you do or what is being done to prepare for such disasters? Here’s the beauty: cattle are already at work mitigating wildfires while grazing forests. When cattle graze on our forest lands, they are better suited than goats or sheep to consume the grass-dominated fuel lines that burn, and they don’t need the protection from predators that other small species require. I remember running our “grass” cattle in crown land and private land during late spring and summer months. One thing for sure, the genetics that you selected for your herd showed up at work during these periods. As cattle consume overgrown grass and shrubs, they naturally aerate the ground while walking, then they defecate and spread seeds along the way, giving growth to new humid grass that won’t burn as fast.
At home, you should incorporate fire procedures in your emergency plan. Have potential exits, round-up procedures, trucking companies that you may have to call upon, coordinate with your neighbours. It is better to be prepared and not need to execute a disaster plan than to be in the middle of it and not know what to do at the last minute. Contact your veterinarian to help you prepare one if you need help.