Water Wise

Don't overlook this essential nutrient.

by Chel Terrell, Gulf Coast Cattleman June 2010
*Reprinted with permission

It's June and those sweltering summer temperatures continue to creep higher and higher. As the sweat beads trickle down and clothes stick to the body like glue, one of the first things a person wants to reach for – besides the air conditioner knob – is a tall glass of ice cold water. Water is essential to our survival, whether it's helping us cool down or providing essential nutrients needed to sustain life.

Cattle are no different than humans. Water is the most necessary element needed to survive and is critical for maintaining body condition, production and performance. Quality and quantity play pivotal roles in the amount of water cattle consume and the resulting effects on performance and health.

“There are a number of reasons to be concerned about water quality and quantity,” said Dr. Joe Paschal, Texas Cooperative Extension beef cattle specialist. “If we reduce water consumption because of quality issues, whether because of smell, taste, contamination, temperature or other factors, we may affect overall productivity of the animal. For example, when a cow starts to lactate, she will consume about 20 to 25 percent more water than a non-lactating cow. She needs that additional water.”

The amount of water cattle need daily will vary depending on the class and size of the animal. Johnny Rossi, extension animal scientist at the University of Georgia, and Dr. Mel Pence, DVM, retired from the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, investigated water requirements and quality issues affecting cattle. The table below reflects the water requirements when daily temperatures reach 90 degrees F for several classes of cattle.

According to their research, “Water requirements double when temperature increases from 50 to 95 degrees F. Cows and bulls will need 15 to 20 gallons of water per day during the summer months.”

They also mention that diet affects daily water intake.

“Cattle grazing lush growth that contains 75 percent water need much less additional water than cattle fed dry feeds or hay containing only 10 percent water.”

Even if the quality of the water is not ideal, cattle will still consume it, just not in the optimal quantity needed.

“I think people take it for granted that cattle perform better with good quality water,” Paschal said. “There's been some research done that found cattle consumed greater amounts of water that hadn't been disturbed (without lots of sediment) than water that had been disturbed and had lots of sediment in it. Other research where cattle drank from the top of the water trough verses the bottom showed that water consumption was much higher for those animals that consumed out of the top of the trough rather than those forced to consume water from the bottom.

“That tells me two different things. One, cattle actually prefer clean water when they can get it if they are drinking out of a trough. Two, when our tanks start getting low and dry, cattle will drink that water, but it's not their preference.

“Seventy percent of the body is water. Water is important for every physiological function I can think of, and if cattle quit drinking, they become slightly dehydrated,” he said.

Monitoring water availability and quality during hot, dry months is crucial. Checking water sources such as stock tanks and troughs and monitoring contamination or mineral imbalances is necessary. Dissolved solids (salinity), sulfates, hardness, manure, nitrates and algae are several elements known to affect water quality. When water levels decrease, the concentration of these and other contaminants increases in the remaining stagnant water, and when ingested, can have a negative effect on cattle health and productivity.

According to an article by Dr. Max Irsik, DVM, University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, salinity refers to salts dissolved in water and is usually measured as total dissolved solids (TDS) or total soluble salts (TSS). When salt content is too high in the water, animals will refuse to drink, which can lower feed intake and daily gains. Cattle should not consume water with more than 5,000 ppm of dissolved solids.

“After Hurricane Ike, a lot of cattle got thin because they wouldn't drink the salty water and were in poor body condition. Yes, they were hungry. But several days before the hurricane hit, they were in good body condition. They were basically dehydrated. They were thin, looked weak and were immunologically compromised. This was a disaster situation, but these are the same kind of effects you see, in a minor way, on cattle that are forced to drink lower quality water. They're just not going to drink as much of it.”

Water hardness refers to the level of calcium and magnesium in the water. It does not have a major influence on cattle performance and health, but Paschal said that calcium can cause several problems, one of which is affecting selenium uptake.

Water with high levels of sulfate can taste bitter and cause diarrhea in cattle. Irsik said that 500 ppm is the maximum recommended sulfate level for calves and 1,000 ppm is the recommended max for adult cattle.

Manure and fertilizer runoff from fields can increase the level of nitrates in water. Rossi and Pence note that 450 ppm is the recommended maximum levels of nitrates in the water for cattle. Water that is high in nitrates can cause death in some instances; however, animals with nitrate poisoning generally exhibit signs such as vomiting, labored breathing, lower feed intake and possible reduced pregnancy rates. Rossi and Pence point out that younger cattle are more vulnerable to nitrate poisoning.

“Most people water their cattle out of a tank or pond,” Paschal said. “The problem is, they're dependent on runoff from rainfall to fill them, or maybe a windmill. Tanks that are filled by runoff need to have a good grass barrier around them that allows water in, but has a filtering process that catches a lot of particulate matter. Whatever is lying on the ground within hundreds of yards, like feces, dirt and salt, goes into the tank without some type of filter.

“As long as the tank is half full or better, anything that gets through the grass filter will eventually settle to the bottom and is not going to be a problem. If the water level gets below half, that's when water quality becomes an issue. The lower and lower the water gets, the more concentrated the stuff that's run off into there becomes. And cattle will go there and drink it, they just won't drink as much of it and won't get as much benefit from it.”

Cattle can also get sick from consuming too much algae that can be on the surface of the water. Blue-green algae are bacteria, Rossi and Pence note, and under “ideal” conditions can produce toxins that might kill cattle. Producers can remove algae in several ways, such as aerating the water or fencing cattle off the tank and pumping water into it. Paschal recommends using copper sulfate at a rate of 1 teaspoon per 1,800 gallons of water.

“For a lot of small troughs, it takes very little to keep the algae clean,” he said.

Paschal also recommends cleaning water troughs around pens and small pastures a few times a year to clean out the algae and other sediment that has collected.

“We do this about three or four times a year around the cattle pens. Drain the trough and scrape out the mud. The mud displaces a lot of water. You can use a little bleach or mild bleach spray to help kill the algae and other organisms, then flush the trough out. They'll grow back, but in the meantime, it's clean.”

Good grazing distribution also helps, he said.

“Cattle are always going to graze pretty close to water. Attracting cattle away from the water to other areas through the use of salt, minerals or a hay ring, which ranchers have done, is a good idea.

“Cattle will walk about 1-1/2 miles to water, depending on the terrain and temperature. You can train the animals to move away from the water by moving the supplement or other feed away from the water source over time. This will remove as much pressure as possible.

“Fencing off your water and creating a gravel access into the water tank as the only location cattle can enter the water might work for many producers. It may not be for everybody, though.”

Producers should be careful when using streams or creeks as water sources and watch for destruction of the riparian areas. This is simply good environmental stewardship, Paschal said.

“If we could create a buffer strip or maintain a buffer strip that's 50 feet or so of grass or brush along that waterway and then create an entryway where those cattle could go into the water at a specific point and not everywhere, that would certainly help.”

Paschal also notes that the design of a water tank will affect a lot of water quality and consumption issues.

“I'm not an ag engineer, but I know that a deep tank is going to have a lot fewer problems with water quality than a shallow one. My shallow tank goes dry quicker and the water quality is more uniformly sorry as levels go down compared to my deep tank. The water level in it has to go down quite a bit before the quality starts to get sorry.”

Consult your local National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and ask them to help you with information about your tank.

“NRCS can determine the size of the tank; how much water is in it at different levels; what 50 percent capacity is, etc.,” Paschal said. “Just like major cities monitor their aquifer and dam water levels, I think ranchers would be wise to do that. They need to know the water capacity of their tanks at certain levels so they can plan ahead.”

Quality water is paramount to cattle condition, performance and overall production. Take steps to provide the best water source possible for your herd.


Daily water requirements for growing animals, dry cows, cow-calf pairs and bulls when the daily high temperature is 90 degrees F.

Type of cattle            Daily gallons required per 100 lbs. of body weight

Growing Animal         2.0
Dry Cow                    1.0
Cow-Calf Pair            2.0
Bull                            1.0

Water Requirements and Quality Issues for Cattle, Johnny Rossi, Extension Animal Scientist, University of Georgia, and Mel Pence, Veterinary Field Investigator


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