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Make sure livestock have water

Situation can get serious quickly if a pump fails, or a water hole dries up

During a heat wave a dugout can dry up and endanger your herd.

Water is the most essential nutrient of life and even though most areas have more than enough water this year, it’s always worth talking about the risk of water deprivation.

Insufficient and poor-quality water can reduce weight gain and depending on the water source, there can be other issues such as foot rot and potential for algae poisoning as water levels get low.

There are some common-sense principles one must be aware of in times of low water tables, low dugouts levels and common water sources drying up. Water supply must be monitored frequently.

For example, solar pumps may not have the capacity to lift water into the troughs as dugout water levels recede. Also, algae and aquatic plants may plug pumps. Have as much storage capacity as possible in the watering troughs so ideally there is at least a couple of days supply of water in the event of a pump failure. In wet years there is lots of surface water in sloughs and low spots, which livestock can default to in the event of a water supply failure. Dry years often don’t give us this luxury.

Not pretty, but the guts and organs of this bison calf dried out due to water deprivation. photo: Roy Lewis

Rule of thumb

A rule of thumb is that water consumption is 10 per cent body weight in the summer and about half that in the winter. So 100 head of good-sized 1,500-pound cows with early-born calves at foot which are say, 500 pounds, equals about 2,000 pounds per pair. So each pair is going to need about 20 gallons per day, which means the 100 pairs are going to need about 2,000 gallons of water on a hot day. (Looking at water requirements in terms of weight, figure about 10 pounds per gallon. If that 100-head herd needs 2,000 gallons that’s about 20,000 pounds of water per day.)

If calculating capacity left in the dugout, one cubic foot of water is 6.24 gallons or 60 plus pounds of water. Also keep in mind evaporation and seepage as well as consumption adds into the total water loss.

Whatever watering system you use, make sure supplies are checked regularly. Only a few days without water can become life-threatening with livestock, not to mention the production losses.

The first signs of water deprivation are sunken flanks, much as you would see with sick cattle where feed consumption or water consumption is reduced. Cattle may act overly quiet hanging out by the water source or by the gates trying to get out. I have even seen water deprivation in winter in situations where heated watering bowls were shocking the cattle and they couldn’t drink. Water deprivation is not totally a summer phenomenon.

The different behaviour I described comes initially from thirst in the throat area, just like we humans experience. The next stage is cellular dehydration and the typical sunken eyes very tacky skin, cessation of urinary output and other symptoms. If found in this state, provide water (low in salinity to avoid salt poisoning) as quickly as possible.

In situations where cattle have been without water, gradual replenishment is the ideal but realistically thirsty livestock are going to be fighting to get at water. The best approach is to provide as much room as possible by providing more water tanks. Keep in mind once water is replaced that may not be the end of your problems. Pregnant cattle may abort or resorb their fetuses.

Animal-health authorities may lay charges in cases of preventable water deprivation, even though it might be deemed an accident. As much as feed is important to survival, special consideration must always be paid to the water supply. Both the quality and especially the quantity of water must be made available.

About the author


Roy Lewis is an Alberta-based veterinarian specializing in large-animal practice. He is also a part-time technical services vet for Merck Animal Health.



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