Good Quality Water Essential To Any Cattle Operation

US - Limiting access to water can suppress an animal’s performance more quickly and drastically than any other nutrient deficiency. Therefore, it is important that a plentiful and quality water supply is made available in a livestock operation, according to Roxanne Johnson, an North Dakota State University Extension Service water quality specialist.
calendar icon 26 August 2010
clock icon 4 minute read

“It’s important that livestock have access to as much water as they want and when they want it,” Ms Johnson said.

One of the first things a producer should know is: what’s the quality of the available water supplies? For those using a rural water system, that isn’t a concern. But for those using private wells or other sources, such as dugouts, the water should be sent to a lab and tested.

“I encourage people to do that, because you don’t want to wait until the last minute and then all of a sudden you don’t have a good water source,” she said.

A water test will determine several chemical properties of the water which will play a large role in how much water is consumed by the cattle, and in certain situations, if the water will have a negative impact on the animal’s performance.

The first property is salinity, which refers to the amount of salt dissolved in the water. This is expressed in parts per million (ppm) but sometimes the term total dissolved solids (TDS) is also used when talking about salinity.

Generally if the water contains less than 3,000 ppm the water is satisfactory for most livestock. When solids register between 3,000 and 5,000 ppm the water will probably be okay for adult livestock, but young, growing animals could be affected by looseness or poor feed conversion.

Water with salinity in the 5,000 to 10,000 ppm range should not be used for pregnant or lactating females. Water in this range usually has a laxative effect and may result in reduced water intake, and water with more than 10,000 ppm may actually cause brain damage or death.

Animals have the ability to adapt to saline water, but changes from a low saline water to that with higher levels should be done gradually since an abrupt changes could cause harm.

However, to get a complete picture of the quality of water Johnson stressed producers must look beyond the TDS levels and actually measure specific components of the dissolved solids in the water.

Some of the salts commonly found in water in this region include carbonates, bicarbonates, sulfates, nitrates, chlorides, phosphates and fluorides.

One of the salts that need to be watched is sulfates. Usually in this region, water with high TDS levels also tend to be high in sulfates. A level of 1,000 ppm of sulfates may result in scours and can also reduce the copper availability from the animal’s diet.

For those reasons, the sulfate recommendation for calves is less than 500 ppm and less than 1,000 ppm for adult cattle.

Water sources may also be the carrier of nitrates and, if the levels become high enough, can be toxic. Sources of nitrates in water include fertilizer runoff, animal waste or decaying organic matter. When considering nitrates, remember to consider the level of nitrates from both the feed and water sources.

Water pH. According to Ms Johnson, if the water is acidic, or below a 7 reading, it’s going to taste sour, and if it’s alkaline, or above 7, it will taste metallic.

“Sometimes we do see water as high as 9 to 9.5, and that’s usually when we have algae growing in the water,” she said.

“We have found that cattle prefer water from 6.5 to 8. When it falls outside that range, the cattle are still drinking it, but it does influence the taste, and there isn’t a lot of data on how taste affects the water consumption.”

Supplies of water from dugouts. Dugouts are often used to supply water for cattle, especially in remote locations, but Ms Johnson points out they also are involved with a special set of problems.

Leptospirosis bacteria can be present in the water and this can cause reproduction problems.

“What happens is the cow puts her face in the water to drink and we have the bacteria entering the eyes, ears, nose and mouth - that’s how they gain access,” she said. “A dugout is also a potential source for footrot as the cattle are walking in the mud to get to water. If they have a little cut on their foot that’s the route this organism takes.”

There are several things a producer can do to improve the water quality from a dugout, according to Ms Johnson. First, direct access to the water by the cattle can be either limited to a small area or eliminated entirely.

To limit access, the cattle will be fenced out from the dugout with an access ramp provided in a small section. This ramp will slope up five or six feet from the waterline, but some cattle will still get into the dugout because of an unfenced area at the end of the ramp.

A better way is to install a pump that will move the water from the dugout into a water tank that is located outside of the totally fenced in dugout. These pumps can be powered by electricity, if the facility is located within 1500 feet of a power source.

Otherwise the pump can be solar-powered, run by a gas engine, or be wind driven.

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