Close attention to water quality can result in far better gains and health for livestock. It is often left out of the equation when discussing ways to increase production, and the last thing checked in disease investigations. Since the bovine is generally very tolerant of poor-quality water obvious health concerns may not arise yet subtle losses will be occurring daily. In drought conditions certain minerals can become concentrated and interfere with other minerals resulting in deficiencies that affect the health of the whole herd.
In comparative studies tank-watered calves outgained dugout-watered calves by up to 20 per cent over the summer. Lots of reasons can be cited for this result but the most obvious is accessibility. In hot weather consumption goes up to approximately 10 per cent of body weight per day or roughly one gallon per 100 pounds.
Calves need easy access to water. With drier conditions dugouts can become inaccessible. A simple calculation shows that 100 1,500-pound cows with 500-pound calves at foot need 2,000 gallons a day. On real hot days consumption may be even higher so checking daily or having low-water alarm systems set up may avoid having the water run out.
We must also think of environmental concerns as evidenced by the Walkerton E. coli contamination some years ago. Manure can contain E. coli as well as coccidian oocysts and giardia that are especially harmful to young calves.
Large algal blooms in dugouts, particularly blue-green algae, also release toxins that are fatal to cattle. Luckily it takes a combination of algal kill and wind concentrating the algae at the edges for it to reach lethal levels or more deaths would occur. It is a very rare, yet still fatal disease.
Just as feedlots regularly clean out their watering bowls it may be a good idea to wash out water tanks with a disinfectant such as Virkon at the start of the season to eliminate organisms that have built up since last year. Dugouts get a spring flush from run-off but water quality worsens by the end of the grazing season.
You might reduce or even eliminate foot rot and leg injuries as well as deaths due to drowning or cattle being stuck in the mud by improving their access to water.
Young calves often can’t reach water except for the dirty water left in stagnant pockets, hardly a desirable source. When a steer calf’s water intake is restricted it raises the possibility of urinary calculi blocking his urinary passage. The cost of one calf these days can often pay for a permanent summer watering system.
Only occasionally do producers check water quality for their livestock, yet you can almost guarantee they will check the quality of the water from a new well drilled for their own consumption. We should show the same concern for our livestock. Even testing every few years gives us a higher level of confidence.
Water analysis looks at several values. Total dissolves solids (TDS) or salinity is a very important parameter to measure. Ideally this value should be under 3500 for cattle.
Water approaching 1.25 per cent salt is toxic to livestock. I’ve seen mature cows die from induced cerebral edema caused from dugout water high in salt.
Another deficiency issue we see more and more, especially across the Prairies, is copper deficiency often brought on by water too high in sulphates or molybdenum. These two minerals singly bind up the copper so even if there is adequate copper in the mineral it is not enough. Higher copper must be fed and/or the water source changed. This is called secondary copper deficiency and by the time it is recognized serious losses can occur. Sulphate levels in the water of around 600 ppm or 600 mg per litre are considered high.
We often see these deficiencies in cattle consuming well water that hasn’t been checked for years.
Direct access to dugouts leads to loss of water storage capacity from the bank breaking down and the sediment building up in the bottom. Additional maintenance to remove sediment will eventually be necessary. When you get the water away from the water source the cattle are fitter and the manure is spread away from the dugout or stream, so there is less contamination. This is usually done with tanks or reservoirs filled by solar- or wind-powered pumps. Due to the unreliability of sunshine or wind at least three days’ storage is necessary.
Windmills also improve dugout quality by aeration but the capacity of these systems is limited to about 50 cow-calf pairs except in very windy areas of southern Alberta where the capacity may double.
The capacity of solar systems depends on the number of solar panels installed. More can be added as the need arises.
Farmer ingenuity has produced some very versatile systems. One that I’ve seen consisted of four large tanks set on a trailer with removable wheels. The solar panels were placed in the middle. When moving pastures the water was easily drained and the entire system could be set up and working again within minutes. The large tanks provided easy access and doubled the storage capacity of the unit. You can even set one tank lower for calves.
More elaborate systems can be set up for a few thousand dollars but even elaborate systems can fail so it is always a good idea to have a backup plan in place.
Several water deprivation cases have been traced to failed circuit boards or plugged intake lines when cattle were turned into a new area and no one checked the water supply. The hotter the summer the more critical this backup becomes. Three days without water results in death or severe metabolic imbalances.
In the case of fenced dugouts, gates can be opened in emergencies. Once cattle get used to drinking cleaner water from the tank it may not even be necessary to fence off the dugout, yet water is there if the pump fails. It’s a good idea to observe your livestock to determine if your system has enough capacity to meet their demands in hot weather when they start drinking 10 per cent of their body weight daily.
In winter mature cattle do quite well eating snow. This allows you to feed away from calving areas and summer water supplies. I would recommend giving water to pregnant cows that are in the last trimester or poor condition. Remember, water is the nutrient of life. Animals only survive a few days without it so it is well worth preserving. c
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.