Water quality can affect livestock production

Providing cattle with good-quality water can promote forage intake and weight gain and improve herd health.

May 14, 2020

3 Min Read
NDSU water for cattle health2.jpg
Providing good-quality water can improve herd health.NDSU photo

Providing adequate water to livestock is critical for animal health and production, according to North Dakota State University extension livestock environmental stewardship specialist Miranda Meehan.

“Good-quality water can have a major impact on your cattle’s intake and weight gain,” Meehan said.

She pointed out that Canadian studies have shown that the quality of water accessible to livestock is directly tied to the amount of forage they consume. Studies reported improved gains by as much as 0.24 lb. per day in yearlings and 0.33 lb. per day in calves receiving good-quality water.

Providing good-quality water also can improve herd health. Livestock whose primary water sources are ponds and dugouts have a greater risk of contracting illnesses such as giardia, leptospirosis and cyanobacterial poisoning compared with livestock drinking from a trough, the announcement said.

“Water quality can vary depending on the source,” North Dakota State extension agricultural engineer Tom Scherer said. “Groundwater tends to be of higher quality than surface water; however, some aquifers in North Dakota have naturally high levels of potentially toxic salts such as sulfate due to geology.

“Weather also can influence water quality,” he added. “When runoff is low in the spring or during a drought, the salts in surface water become more concentrated as water levels decline and can reach levels that can be toxic.”

All natural water contains dissolved minerals (often called salts). The concentration of the total dissolved solids (TDS) is measured in parts per million. For most classes of grazing livestock, TDS in the water should be less than 5,000 ppm, the specialists said.

They noted that sulfate is included in TDS, and the recommended concentration should be less than 500 ppm for calves and less than 1,000 ppm for adult cattle. High sulfate levels can reduce copper availability in the diet. Elevated levels of sulfates may cause loose stool, whereas very high levels of sulfate can induce central nervous system problems.

If a water test indicates that TDS exceeds 5,000 ppm or the sulfate concentration is above 1,000 ppm, producers may have to find an alternative water source or find some way to blend a better-quality water with the poorer-quality water to reduce the concentration of TDS or sulfate.

Water with elevated nutrient levels also is at a higher risk for blue-green algae blooms in periods of hot, dry weather. Some species of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) contain toxins that can be deadly when livestock and wildlife consume them.

“Monitoring water quality throughout the grazing season is important because it changes in response to climate and environmental conditions,” Meehan said.

To document this variability and help livestock producers identify potential water quality concerns, Meehan and Scherer are working with 23 extension agents across North Dakota to monitor livestock water quality.

Installing a water development project can help ensure that livestock have access to good-quality water throughout the grazing season, the specialists said. In addition to benefiting animal health and performance, installing water development projects can:

  • Increase flexibility in producers’ management systems;

  • Increase grazeable acreage and extend the grazing season;

  • Allow producers to utilize crop residues and cover crops for forage, and

  • Improve grazing distribution.

Common water development projects include troughs, pumps, wells and pipelines. Through time, these improvements, combined with appropriate management, have the potential to increase the carrying capacity of a producer’s operation, allowing for an increase in herd size and/or increased drought resistance with stockpiled forages, the specialists said.

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