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Snow can be an excellent water source for cattle

Eating snow is a learned behaviour which may take a few days for livestock to adjust

For eons, wild animals in Canada especially the large herbivores have relied on snow as their primary water source through the winter. It has been shown that some wild species like reindeer actually prefer snow if given a choice.

Canadian ruminants, especially pregnant beef and bison cows and heifers, can do well eating snow. On the other hand, I have multiple clients who go to elaborate lengths to make sure their cattle get access to water through the winter. Since we have already in many areas have had adequate snowfall this year the practice of eating snow has become a timely topic. What are some of the facts about common winter watering practices?

Snow can work well

In several studies done in Alberta and Montana where cold weather and adequate snowfall were present all results were very consistent. There was no change in either body fat of the cows and birth weights of the resulting calves, whether animals ate snow or had another water source. Some studies even followed it further to the subsequent weaning weights of the calves and found them unaffected as well. Fertility and days till rebreeding were also unaffected.

Unless there is inadequate snow or it is extremely crusted from rains it can be a totally acceptable practice in mature large ruminants (cattle, bison and elk). In late pregnancy where fetal fluids increase and into calving more water is necessary to produce good-quality colostrum and milk. In those situations, and if the cows are lacking adequate body condition, water is necessary. Cattle are generally brought in closer to the yard for calving and access to water is readily available then. The rest of the time snow consumption will not have any detrimental effect on your mature cattle.

Need to monitor

Fresh snow is very clean and has no fecal contamination; dirty snow however could promote transmission of internal parasites. You must monitor body condition since lack of water will reduce feed consumption and animals will drop condition rapidly if H2O (water or snow) is deficient. Gauntness in the flanks is the first telltale signs. Weight loss over the ribs and spine are visible next. Watch the consistency of the manure as less water of course causes a dryness and stiffness to the cow patties.

Eating snow is a learned behaviour so if its new to them livestock may take up to three days to adjust to eating snow. Keep in mind the requirements for water will drop in the winter as the temperature declines. I use an average rule of 10 per cent body weight in summer or about one gallon per 100 lbs. It drops to 2/3 or less in the cold winter. Silage feeding over the years has also decreased the water requirements because of the moisture in it (between 50 and 60 per cent). Livestock must have access to fresh snow so that must be watched closely and there is no doubt the smaller framed cattle do better under this management scheme.

There are many benefits to eating snow as it relates to management and costs on your farm. Stockpiled pastures or remote and protected wintering areas can be utilized. You save electricity costs by not heating watering bowls and running pumping systems. This is notwithstanding the large initial costs to trenching in lines or purchasing all-weather watering systems. By moving the feeding area the manure is spread out considerably eliminating the need for manure removal. The calving yards can also be kept totally clean until needed

In our area we experienced a drought for a few years so this practice of eating snow takes some of the pressure off of farm dugouts or wells that become taxed supplying water year-round.

Every year there are one or two wrecks in our area of a producer losing multiple head of cattle after they fall through the dugout ice. This almost invariably occurs when producers cut holes in the ice for the cattle to water. Not only do they risk drowning, there also gets to be a large concentration of manure on the ice, which in spring contaminates the water.

I still remember several years ago seeing an aerial photograph of cattle being watered through a hole in the ice on the Red Deer River. With all the manure on the ice and the thought of communities downstream getting their drinking water from this same source, environmental groups could have a heyday with it. This practice would not happen today. Eating snow on vast expanses of land gets away from these types of environmental concerns.

Cows have energy

It was once thought the energy to melt the snow could decrease feed efficiency by taking too much energy to melt. This has since been disproven especially if the livestock must walk a long way to find a thawed water source — that takes energy as well. The heat created in the rumen during the digestion process easily melts the snow. Thin cows are an exception to this rule and snow watering will make their condition worse. If thin cows back off eating snow compaction is a real possibility.

Overall there are no detrimental health aspects to withholding liquid water from cattle or bison for long periods during the winter months when they are not heavily pregnant. You do need to make sure there is adequate fresh snow.

And closer to calving, fresh water should be given as the demands on colostrum and milking necessitate water being readily available. Snow watering may prove to be convenient and a cost effective method for your operation. It is also very environmentally friendly and adds to the concept of cattle being very sustainable on our land.

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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