Reports from across Nebraska have underscored demoralizing news for ranchers: The state's worst cattle deaths since 2009 occurred within a few hours on July 9.
No one knows how many cattle died, because ranchers resist talking herd size in any context, not just cattle deaths.
At least 3,000 head of cattle are dead in the Columbus area, based on reports made to the National Drought Mitigation Center, based at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
In the Columbus area, the animals started suffering about noon. Most of the deaths occurred from about 2 to 6 p.m., according to a drought center report released Thursday.
With a value of roughly $1,500 per head, the Columbus-area loss comes to about $4.5 million.
Pete McClymont, executive vice president of the Nebraska Cattlemen, said the deaths extended beyond Columbus and occurred across central Nebraska.
His organization also doesn't know how many cattle died, because ranchers and feedlot operators aren't sharing numbers with Nebraska Cattlemen, either.
“It's so hard to mentally handle this,” he said. “Plenty of our members are just talking through the frustration.”
“This has been a kick in the teeth,” McClymont said.
The cattle industry is reeling from back-to-back drought years. Herd sizes already have been trimmed about 20 percent.
McClymont said the deaths resulted from a combination of high temperatures, high humidity and little to no wind. Additionally, the cattle simply may not have become acclimated to the summer's heat, he said.
Barbara Mayes, meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said the most unusual aspect of that afternoon was the lack of wind.
The high in Columbus hit 93 degrees, and the heat index reached 101 degrees. However, wind speeds ranged from calm to no more than 8 mph.
“That's pretty unusual,” she said. “That day was stagnant.”