Drinking Water Quality For Beef Cattle

By Gene Surber, Extension Natural Resource Specialist, Montana State University; Kent Williams, Custer County Extension Agent; and Mark Manoukian, Phillips County Extension Agent. - An environment friendly and production management enhancement technique.
calendar icon 10 August 2006
clock icon 4 minute read

Throughout the summer, most cattle in the West receive drinking water from earthen basins such as reservoirs, ponds and dugouts (referred to here as dam/pits). However, research is limited on the water quality of these earthen structures. Does the movement of the cattle degrade vegetation on the shoreline to the point where the filtering effect of the water is reduced? Do cattle that drink from earthen basins consume more sediment and fecal organisms than those that drink from a watering tank? If so, does water of better quality affect growth performance to a point that is economically significant?

Research shows that cattle will choose to drink from a tank rather than wade in mud or risk slipping on ice to get a drink of water. However, just because cattle like the tank is not enough reason to install one, particularly when cattle prices are barely keeping up with expenses.

We set up a demonstration project for beef cattle to observe their drinking water preference and the water quality of the sources. The study had several objectives:

  • Determine if cattle show a preference for tank water versus water in a dam/pit

  • Determine if availability of a nearby tank would affect shoreline vegetation near a dam/pit, compared to a dam/pit without a watering tank nearby

  • Determine water quality differences between the tank water and the dam/pit from which the tank was filled.
"Nearly 80 percent of the cows and calves observed showed a preference for the tank water over dam/pit water."

Finally, we hoped to observe livestock behavior regarding use of the tank as well as performance data such as weight and cow/calf efficiency.

During the summer of 1996, cattle were given a choice of drinking from dam/pits or tanks located 50 to 150 feet from the dam/pits. Water in the tank was supplied via gravity flow or a solar pumping system from the same dam/pit. No fencing was used to limit access to any of the dam/pit water sources.

Nearly 80 percent of the cows and calves observed showed a preference for the tank water over dam/pit water. Cattle exhibited a learning curve, and began to look for the tank toward the end of the season. Calves demonstrated the most interest in the tank and were the most consistent users of the tank water.

More residue was left on the shorelines of the dam/pit with a nearby tank. Total suspended solids (TSS) were much lower (2mg/L) in the tank compared to the dam/pit (50mg/L) sources. However, other water quality parameters displayed little difference (electrical conductivity, pH, total dissolved solids, nitrate-nitrogen, calcium, potassium, magnesium, and sodium).

Is it worth it?

Research in Alberta, Canada (1995) showed a 23 percent increase in weight gains over 71 days for yearling steers drinking well water versus those drinking from a dam/pit. A 1993 study showed a 20 percent weight increase in cattle that drank water pumped from a dugout into a tank compared to those that drank directly out of a dugout. A 1994 study confirmed the impact on cows, with a lesser impact on calves.

Producers would find it profitable to install tanks as an alternative drinking water source if significant weight gains or cow/calf efficiency can be shown. For example, if calf weights increased just five percent, 100 calves would pay for one gravity system (approximately $1,300-$1,400) even at .60 calf prices, or would pay for a solar system at .80 calf prices.


500-pound calf x .05 = 25 pounds

25 pounds x .60 = $15

$15 x 100 calves = $1,500

Herd health may also benefit from the alternative water source, thereby minimizing disease transmission. This is more difficult to measure monetarily, but may be part of the weight increase, because improved health does enhance cow performance.


Ranchers who are reconstructing dams or building new water sources should consider installing a siphon tube or pump system to a tank away from the edge of the dam/pit and out of the riparian area. We believe ranchers could avoid fencing water sources to enhance water quality if a tank water source was available. Water quality, wildlife habitat and livestock performance should be enhanced if ranchers use limited economic resources to provide tank water systems without the expense of additional fence.

August 2006

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