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Do you know what’s swimming in your livestock water?

Good clean water is the most important nutrient

Don’t underestimate the value of provide cattle with good quality water.

A university professor once told our beef science class that many things that aren’t fish are swimming in most beef cows’ drinking water. As an undergraduate, I envisioned snails and frogs being sucked up by thirsty cows, but soon realized that he was talking about the many undesirable things not visible to the naked eye. To this day, I recommend beef producers provide an adequate supply of high-quality water to their cows, which has been proven to promote health and production.

After all, water is the most important nutrient for beef cows and their calves, replacement heifers and breeding bulls. That’s because it makes up at least 65 per cent of their bodies. It also constitutes 85-90 per cent of gestation fluids and of milk for the newborn calf. The basic water requirement for an average 1,100-lb. (500-kg) beef cow is about 10-12 U.S. gallons (40-45 litres) per daily. However, this amount is influenced by the outside temperature, dry matter content of forages and other feeds, milk production, salt and mineral consumption, drinking-water temperature and finally, quality.

The accompanying table below gives an overview of how much water beef cows and other cattle should drink to meet their basic daily needs, given common summer and autumn temperatures.

Source: Beefalo Corral, 2007.

Water-quality factors

Finding a high-volume water source is easier than finding high quality, because it’s judged on so many different levels. Here are a few of the primary parameters for beef cattle:

  • Total dissolved solids: TDS provides an overall evaluation of water quality in a single index. Salinity (dissolved salts — carbonates, chlorides, bicarbonates, sulphates, nitrates, phosphates and fluorides) makes up a large portion of TDS. TDS of less than 3,000 mg/ml is considered safe for mature dairy cattle.
  • Hardness: This usually does not affect actual water safety for cattle. However, it can result in the accumulation of scales (magnesium, manganese, iron and calcium carbonates) and lead to clogging of pipes and cause waterers not to work properly. Water with more than 120 mg/L as CaCO 3 is considered hard.
  • Water pH: This should fall between 6.8 and 7.5 for cattle. Although there is little research about the adverse effects of mildly alkaline water on cattle, my experience is that when I acidify water from pH of over 8.0 down to 7.4 , cattle tend to drink more and seem healthier.
  • High mineral concentrations: High concentrations of sulphates and trace minerals often bind essential nutrients, thereby increasing their dietary levels. High-iron water has also been implicated in causing E. coli and other bacteria to thrive. On a practical note, HMC decreases loose cattle mineral or salt intake on pasture or in drylot.
  • Nitrates and sulphates: Nitrate toxicity from water is relatively low on most Prairie farms. However, a potential threat may exist when modest nitrate levels are found and cattle are also consuming high-nitrate forage. Likewise, high sulphates in water are dangerous to cattle and their “rotten egg” smell usually limits water intake. They are also linked to a high incidence of polioencelphia.
  • Bacterial and algae contamination: Since most water is contaminated with bacteria, the amount and type of bacteria fed to cattle should be determined. Pathogenic E. coli, coliform bacteria (including fecal) and salmonella counts should be zero. If bacteria bloom under favourable growing conditions, this can cause an unwanted outbreak ranging from temporary diarrhea to serious health issues. Common algae pose little threat to cattle aside from relatively rare blue-green algae blooms.

This is useful information that made a beef producer (150 cow-calf pairs) that I know decide to dig a new well as a good source of water for his cow herd. He said that he is tired of maintaining an older aeration system for a few dugouts or seasonally treating them with copper sulphate. He hopes this new venture means he won’t have to dig too far down to find lots of high-quality water.

About the author


Peter Vitti is an independent livestock nutritionist and consultant based in Winnipeg. To reach him call 204-254-7497 or by email at [email protected]



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