Don’t Underestimate Water Needs

Given that water constitutes about 65 per cent of a nursing beef cows’ body and her milk is made up of about 87 per cent water, it’s no stretch of the imagination to appreciate water is very important for life and good beef cow production.

Finding a good water source for beef cows (as well as for replacement heifers, steers and breeding bulls) and managing it well “boils” down to five major areas: (1) water quantity, (2) water quality, (3) water source (4) environmental protection and (5) implemented water systems. Water is sometimes called the “forgotten essential nutrient” in raising cattle and should never be overlooked for successful beef cow production.

Just how important is water? A common beef cow can go without forage and other feeds for a few weeks before it is rescued; it can lose all of its fat reserves, break down more than half of its protein tissues and still be found alive to make partial or full recovery. If the same animal loses about 10 per cent of its body weight in water it will die.

Water touches almost every facet of a beef cow’s life, from performing life-giving chemical reactions at the cellular level to helping the cow perform even the most routine body functions (cow manure is about 83 per cent moisture). It also plays a significant role in her life production; such as gross feed intake and digestion as well as nutrient absorption, its transportation and final nutrient metabolism in her body. It almost seems that beef cows take their first drink to meet their basic water requirements to live and then take a second drink to grow, reproduce and produce milk for their calf.

The basic water requirement for an average 1,100-lb. (500-kg) beef cow is about 10 to 12 U. S. gallons (40 –45 litres) per day. However, the amount of water she uptakes is influenced by the outside temperature, the dry matter content of forages and other feeds, milk production, salt and mineral consumption, the drinking water temperature and its quality. The following table gives an overview of how much water given the outside ambient temperature that beef cows as well as other beef cattle need to drink in order to meet their basic daily needs and remain productive:

Cows do best with clean water and also prefer water not be too hot or cold. Research shows beef cows tend to drink more water when its temperature is between 40 to 65 F (4 to18 C).

Water quality can be judged on many different levels. Here are

a few common parameters that often help gauge water quality for beef cattle:

Total Dissolved Solids (TDS): 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 part of TDS. TDS of less than 3,000 mg/ml is considered safe for mature dairy cattle.

Water pH: Water should fall within a pH of 6.5 –8.5 for cattle. Values outside these limits cause reduced feed intakes and interfere with feed digestion.

Mineral concentrations: High concentrations of sulphates and trace minerals such as copper and iron are suspect to either bind nutrients or compete with them for specific absorptive sites in the gut, thereby increasing the nutrient requirements for essential nutrients. High iron water has also been implicated in causing salmonella to thrive.

Nitrates and sulphates: The threat of nitrate toxicity from water is relatively low on most western Canadian farms. However, a potential threat may exist when modest nitrate levels in water are ingested by cattle consuming relatively high nitrate forages. Likewise, high sulphate levels in water are potentially dangerous to cattle. The “rotten-egg” smell usually limits cattle intake. High sulphate levels may cause specific trace mineral deficiencies.

Bacterial contamination: All water is contaminated with bacteria, therefore the amount and type of bacteria fed to dairy cattle should be known. Pathogenic E. Coli (causes disease), coliform bacteria (including fecal) and salmonella counts should be zero. Given that all bacteria are opportunistic when favourable growing conditions exist can cause an unwanted outbreak ranging from temporary diarrhea to more serious health problems.

Algae: Aside from relatively rare blue-green toxic algae, common algae pose little threat to cattle, but may limit water consumption by cattle and damage water equipment.

Interestingly, the lowly dugout has been a mainstay water source for many western Canadian cattle over the years and is a good illustration of the above water-quality issues that we might encounter when trying to secure drinking water for cattle. It might be the only available source of water on the Prairies for some cow herds, but it is far from being the best source of water. Many dugouts by nature may have limited cattle access and could vary in annual and seasonal water level, and might even compromise animal comfort and safety. Lastly, thirsty cattle don’t particularly worry about defecating around its borders or directly in the water.

Such visible drawbacks have convinced many producers that dugouts might be used differently in order to improve its water quality. Therefore, many people fenced them off from cattle and then proceed to pump dugout water into storage tanks and then draw off its drinking water. Alberta research seems to agree: steer calves drinking from untreated. but drawn-off dugout water gained about 20 per cent better than similar steers allowed to go down to the dugout’s edge to take a drink.

In thinking the same way, inexpensive treatment of stagnant dugout water has also been shown to improve water quality and led to improved animal performance. Results from a six-year trial conducted by the Western Beef Development Centre (1999) proved that aerated dugout water pumped into a trough for cattle increased the average daily gains of steers by 0.25 lb./head/day compared to steers drinking un-aerated pumped-dugout water.

Some people might forgo dugout aeration due to its initial set-up and pending maintenance costs, and prefer to rely on the timeless method of treating dugout water with copper sulphate (one lb. per 250,000 gallons of dugout water). From experience, they should realize that bluestone will curtail algae growth, but it is relatively ineffective against anaerobic decomposition that leads to unpalatable water.

Fortunately, many Prairie producers have move beyond common dugout water in an attempt to find and provide a better source of water for their cow herd. With some investment, many have taken advantage of naturally occurring water found on their land, such as tapping into ground water by drilling new wells. Some people have gone one step further and laid down a pipeline network from a clean water source, which not only brings fresh water to cattle grazing the farthest pastures, but also encourages more efficient grazing utilization.

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]

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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