March 31, 2009 / 7:50 PM / 8 years ago

Snow and floods threaten North Dakota cattle herd

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SASKATOON, Saskatchewan (Reuters) - A deadly combination of floods, heavy snow and cold in the midst of calving season threatens to thin North Dakota's cattle herd.

A winter storm covered much of the state's southern areas Tuesday, and the National Weather Service was forecasting snowfall of between 10 and 20 inches by Wednesday. Overnight lows for the capital Bismarck are forecast to be well below freezing through Friday.

Calves, especially newborns, are in danger of hypothermia and some farmers are struggling to get feed and water to livestock, said the North Dakota Agriculture Department.

The swollen Red River Valley has few livestock farms, but western North Dakota -- where most of the cattle herd is based -- has also seen flooding and heavy snow. North Dakota ranks 17th among states in cattle production, with 2 million head.

So far, there have been only isolated reports of several hundred cattle deaths. But far greater losses could be in store, based on past flood years. North Dakota lost 120,000 head of cattle in the 1996-97 year, mainly because of severe April flooding followed by a blizzard.

The losses this year will likely be less than half that total despite the unusually harsh conditions, said Jim Jost, program specialist with the U.S. Agriculture Department's Farm Service Agency. Flooding in 1997 was more widespread, Jost said.

Dr. Charlie Stoltenow, a veterinarian and associate professor at North Dakota State University, said it was impossible to gauge how high losses will be. Ranchers are in the middle of calving season and many don't own barns to shelter their animals.

"We're going to suffer major calf losses, I don't think there's any two ways around that," Stoltenow said.

If heavy snow and cold weather last long enough, cattle deaths "could be catastrophic," he said. He estimates with current forecasts, 15,000 to 25,000 head of cattle may die.

Conditions will be tough either way. A fast melt will ease hypothermia risk but raise flooding fears, Stoltenow said.

Many cattle that died in 1997 broke through ice and drowned. There may not be as much ice this year, which means there may be fewer adult cow deaths, Stoltenow said.

Swollen rivers are also worrying crop farmers.

The USDA expects flooding to delay planting two weeks to April 29 this year, said program specialist Dale Ihry. Seeding began at a similar time in 2001 and resulted in 2 million unplanted acres in the state, he said. He said he cannot revise his estimate of 1 million unplanted acres until the snow melt is underway.

The Red River's level at Fargo continues to decline and was 37.98 feet at 12:15 p.m. CDT Tuesday.

Editing by David Gregorio

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