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Snow can work as a winter water source for cattle

Animal Health: But it’s also important to have a fresh source available

When snow is being used as a winter water source, it’s important to watch the your cow’s body condition.

Every year at this time there should be talk about winter water sources for livestock.

Since water is one of the main building blocks of the body, the quality and quantity of the water source are critical. It has been found in many studies over the years that if good-quality snow is available, mature cattle, bison and elk will accustom themselves to it. And with snow as a water source, they also can maintain their weight quite well if feed is adequate. The females will also deliver calves just as if they’d had access to a fresh water source.

There are several myths about watering cattle by eating snow so it is important to know what to watch for and to know when a source of fresh water should be used. Wild herbivores eat snow all the time, so we know it can be done, but we don’t want the performance of domestic livestock to suffer.

A beef animal’s big rumen, for example, does not expend any more energy to melt the snow. However, if we are talking about young cattle eating snow and the objective is to get them to grow after weaning, it is probably best not to rely on snow for the long term. This discussion is tied closely to many of our late-grazing cows that after weaning are left out to graze on stockpiled forage or on swath- or bale-grazing.

As long as there is enough fluffy loose snow to consume, cattle may take two to three days to get used to eating it. Pregnant cows will do fine with snow until they get into the third trimester when there is lots of uterine fluid produced and they start colostrum production. Then a reliable fresh water source is required.

Where snow is being used as the winter water source, we also need to watch the body condition on the cows and bulls. Look for gauntness or other clinical signs. Without a primary clear water source, clinical conditions can advance quickly. The dehydration that’s created causes its own set of problems such as feed impaction.

Provide special attention

With older cows where dentition is becoming a problem, it is best to have these old gals kept with the bred heifers that are being supplied good feed and water. Coarse feed with lots of fibre can also make cows prone to impaction, so keep a close eye on the manure patties. If they don’t plop down rather flat it could be a sign of an impending problem. Rumen impaction can come in multiples and is rather hard to reverse. We used to see many cases when people were feeding a little grain and lots of straw to their cows. This of course is greatly exacerbated if the cattle are eating snow, so always watch for those signs.

Early winter is a delicate time to rely on snow, as it might be scarce and at the same time fresh water sources are starting to freeze. Every year I hear reports of several instances where livestock have fallen through the ice. Severe hypothermia sets in quickly and drownings are common. The edge of the water body has thick ice and the middle has thin ice. Cattle walk out on the ice in search of open water and cause the ice to give way. These are always heartbreaking situations, so at this time of year it is important to pull livestock away from ponds and dugouts or get those water sources fenced off. We all know the trouble spots, so extra effort in this regard can be money well spent to prevent further mishaps.

When rotating cattle through pastures for winter grazing, or opening up new swaths for swath grazing, this inadvertently exposes cattle to fresh snow. In heavy snowfall areas, 18 inches was found to be the maximum depth domestic cattle can handle to still find adequate feed. While bison, elk and horses can deal with much more snow cover than that.

The rule I have always used in summer is that cattle should consume about 10 per cent of their body weight in water per day and in winter this may cut down to about half or two-thirds of that amount. With winter feeding, especially if they are on moist swaths or silage with about 50 per cent moisture, that will also help meet daily water requirements.

In the absence of snow or to supplement snow, frost-free nose pumps and watering bowls that don’t require power can be used to access water under ice-covered dugouts. These systems require some attention to remove ice, sometimes daily.

Some producers are successful at chopping a hole in the ice. I am not a big fan of this practice, because as cattle congregate there is a risk of manure contamination in the water. And there is also the potential of dugout ice collapsing if cattle venture onto the ice. Having said that, many respected cattle producers I know make this work well in the right situation. On the positive side, chop- ping ice has producers out there daily observing and examining their cattle.

It is always a good idea to provide younger, growing animals a fresh water source as clean, accessible water has been proven over and over again to help improve weight gains. It is important especially spring and fall to drain and clean the watering bowls.

Also, water sources should periodically have a water sample taken and tested for several quality factors such as TDS (total dissolved solids). These are inorganic salts that can get too high and result in death of cattle due to salt poisoning. Periodic water analysis is especially important in drought conditions when dugout levels run low, and certainly if a new well is drilled it is important to determine water quality.

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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