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It's bovine bliss

The heat was on at Ray Souza's dairy farm near Turlock on Friday morning. So were the soakers, to the relief of the cows.

Soakers are nozzles that lightly spray the cattle with water as they munch on hay and other rations. This keeps the animals comfortable and productive during a hot spell such as this week's, Souza said.

"The biggest challenge we have is getting calories into the cows," he said. "They just lose their appetite."

Hot weather is a fact of life during a Northern San Joaquin Valley summer, and dairy industry people said this week's temperature spike is within the normal range.

Abnormal is what happened last July, when several factors combined to kill thousands of cows: Temperatures topped 110degrees for three straight days. The air was unusually humid. The usual nighttime cooling, which helps the animals face the next day, did not happen.

In Stanislaus County alone, about 3,400 milking cows succumbed and tens of thousands of survivors had reduced production. Losses to the county's dairy farmers were estimated at about $78 million, about one-seventh of what they grossed the previous year.

Shade, fans, soakers and water

Western United Dairymen, based in Modesto, is reminding its members of measures that help cows keep their cool. They include shade, fans, soakers and extra drinking water.

"We've been trying to be as proactive as we can so we don't end up in a situation like last year with all the cattle we lost," said Michael Marsh, the group's chief executive officer.

Ricardo Chebel, a veterinarian with the University of California, said cows can be overcome by heat because they have few sweat glands. He recommends using soakers to thoroughly wet them down, and fans to circulate the air around them.

Dairy farmers also should avoid crowding the cows, which can increase the heat stress, said Chebel, who works at UC's Veterinary Medicine Teaching and Research Center in Tulare.

Last year's mass deaths coincided with reduced capacity at the rendering plants that take the carcasses, because of the closure of Modesto Tallow Co. Under emergency rules, counties allowed dairy farmers to use one or more of these options — landfilling, composting or on-farm burial.

This summer, industry and government officials are trying to streamline the emergency procedures in case rendering capacity becomes an issue again.

At least milk prices are high

There's one other difference between this summer and last. Milk prices plunged in 2006, putting economic stress on farmers even without the heat losses. This summer, prices are at record highs, thanks to strong demand and short supplies around the world.

The extra income could help farmers improve systems for protecting their cattle from heat. Marsh, however, said many still are digging out from last year's losses and need a few more months of high prices to pull even.

Souza said last year's heat wave disrupted the pregnancy cycles of many cows, delaying the birth of calves and the accompanying milk output until now.

"It's kind of nice, though, because they're calving at a time when the price of milk is up," he said.

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