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Winter Weather Sows Havoc Across U.S. Farm Sector

February 18, 2021   The Wall Street Journal

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A farm near Big Springs, Kan., on Tuesday. Winter storms are projected to cost farmers and agriculture companies millions of dollars.




Jacob Bunge

Feb. 18, 2021 8:38 am ET

Brutal winter weather continued to batter the U.S. agriculture industry, as companies and farmers contended with snow, ice and cold temperatures that disrupted processing, snarled transport and killed livestock across the Midwest and South.


Winter storms are sowing challenges from Kansas to Alabama, state and industry officials said. Energy shortages forced meat-processing plants to temporarily close, while ice buildups kept grain barges off rivers and cattle ranchers struggled to save calves born onto frozen ground in the middle of the night.


The processing and transport disruptions, as well as the loss of animal life, are projected to cost agriculture companies and farmers millions of dollars. Farmers and state agriculture officials said it remained too early to tally all the costs.

“Mother Nature is a really tough business partner, and she has been pretty unforgiving here the past few days,” said Blayne Arthur, Oklahoma’s state agriculture commissioner.


The storm and its aftermath strained electrical grids, forcing rolling blackouts and the direction of natural gas supplies to residential homes. Natural gas constraints led Cargill Inc., one of the biggest U.S. beef processors, to shut down three Texas meat plants through Thursday, a spokesman said, and transportation difficulties slowed its grain and animal feed businesses elsewhere.


Arkansas-based Tyson Foods Inc., the largest U.S. meat company by sales, has temporarily suspended or scaled back operations at some locations due to employee safety concerns and energy constraints, a spokesman said. Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. , another major chicken company, suspended some operations, a spokeswoman said, and pork giant Smithfield Foods Inc. said some of its Midwestern locations were affected by power and water interruptions.


Grain companies have been affected too, with natural gas shortages leading Archer Daniels Midland Co. to slow production at some facilities, a spokeswoman said. Ice buildups on rivers forced some grain-hauling barge operators to suspend operations, said a spokeswoman for the Waterways Council Inc., a river transportation trade group.


With another storm set to drop more snow from Oklahoma to the mid-Atlantic region, agriculture officials said the effects of the sustained wintry blast could be felt for months. Mike Beam, secretary of the Kansas Department of Agriculture, said the cold snap would leave the big beef state’s cattle ranchers and meatpackers with skinnier cattle to sell and process, since livestock burn more calories keeping warm.


In Oklahoma, Ms. Arthur said early estimates showed around 15% of newborn calves would be lost, taking a financial and emotional toll on ranchers.


Clay Burtrum, who raises cattle near Stillwater, Okla., has spent the past few days driving his pastures on the lookout for cows giving birth. On Monday afternoon, he said he grabbed a still-wet newborn calf and set it in the passenger seat of his truck with the heater on high, drying it off before returning it to its mother.


Ranchers on the southern U.S. Plains often don’t build barns, because of their typically milder winters. Mr. Burtrum said some of his neighbors were taking calves into their houses to help them survive the cold, or building makeshift windbreaks from hay bales and trailers.


The snow and bitter cold are also expected to damage some crops and produce that typically thrive through Southern winters. In Texas, some kale and cabbage fields might be completely lost, said Texas Farm Bureau President Russell Boening, and citrus orchards have taken a hit in some areas.


State agriculture officials in Louisiana and Alabama fretted over cold-injured strawberry fields and lost forage crops for livestock. Mike Strain, commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture, said low temperatures have threatened the state’s crawfish production, likely reducing their size and quantity.


In Arkansas, Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward said he was monitoring natural gas and power availability to the state’s chicken industry, which he said processes around tens of millions of birds each week. Prolonged disruptions at any point in the heavily interconnected industry, from the hatcheries where chicks are born to the farms where they are fed and the plants that process them, could have impacts on other parts of the chain, he said.


“If we can get through this week, I think we’ll be OK,” Mr. Ward said.

Write to Jacob Bunge at