Water might be the Rodney Dangerfield of nutrients – it just doesn’t get any respect. We could use the latest edition of “Nutrient Requirements of Beef Cattle” as an example. Of the six classes of nutrients discussed in that resource, water is the last topic and the shortest chapter even though water makes up 99% of every molecule in an animal.
It is easy to fall a trap of assuming that as long as water is present the animal’s needs are being met. However, the availability of water does not guarantee consumption. Water intake is strongly linked to feed intake so any factors that cause cattle to drink less will lead to reduced feed intake and consequently reduced performance.
Water intake and water quality issues become more pronounced during the summer. Cattle need to drink more during hot weather to relieve heat stress. Some of the dams or streams that non-confined cattle use in the summer may have less than optimal water quality due to sulfate or dissolved solids issues. Warm weather also leads to increased microbial and algae growth; further compromising water quality especially if there is also fecal contamination.
Researchers in Canada observed that yearlings that drank from clean water sources (from a well or stream directly into a trough) gained 20 to 23% more weight compared to yearlings that drank from a pond, either directly or if the pond water was pumped into a trough. Calves on cows showed a similar response with a 10% advantage to drinking from a clean water source.
These researchers also studied the effect of fecal contamination on water preference as well as water and feed consumption. They found that cattle tended to avoid water with as little as 50 ppm fecal contamination. Cattle ate less feed at 2500 ppm manure contamination. That represents as little as a half an ounce of fecal material in a gallon of water.
Additional factors to consider include:
- Water quality testing for factors such as total dissolved solids and sulfates. There should be at least a baseline test for any well sources. Water from ponds or dams should be tested more often because the composition changes depending on environmental conditions such as drought or high amounts of run-off.
- Consider excluding cattle from ponds, dams, or streams. Doing so will improve water quality, livestock performance, and enhance wildlife habitat.
- Keep waterers and tanks clean. Only a small amount of feed, manure, or algae growth can inhibit water consumption and consequently decrease feed intake. Warm weather makes those conditions worse.
- Make certain there is sufficient water space and water delivery capacity during hot weather. During heat stress events the amount of space required per animal triples. If necessary provide additional water tanks in the pen.