The benefits of providing fresh, clean water to livestock

Many livestock producers use ponds to provide water to their animals. While a farm pond has the benefit of providing somewhere for livestock to cool off, pond water is not the cleanest and can sometimes be stagnant, providing an environment for harmful organisms to grow. This is known as “water fouling” and can cause numerous health problems, from dehydration to algal toxicity to eptospirosis. The potential for these type of issues leads many producers to seek cleaner, higher quality water sources for their stock.

“Because of the importance of high-quality water to beef production, producers should do everything possible to maintain the quality of their water sources,” Dr. Shane Gadberry, livestock nutritionist with the University of Arkansas, explained. “If a well is used as the primary water source, it should be properly graded and capped to prevent contamination by runoff surface water, fertilizer and other chemical applications to adjacent pasture or cropland should be closely controlled.”

A farm’s grazing practices can contribute to the quality of animal water sources as well.

“Apply nitrogen fertilizers only according to soil test results. Forage systems decreasing the need for added nitrogen to be used,” Gadberry said. “In addition, keep waterers as clean as possible. A waterer with excessive algal growth or other filth can decrease water intake and performance, even though the water is apparently of high quality.”

When considering livestock water sources, producers should think about how much water animals actually need.

The daily water requirement for cattle varies with their size and age, activity, lactation and dry matter intake, with the moisture content of feed and forage, air temperature and distance to water, according to the University of Missouri Extension. Lush forage may have a moisture content of 70 to 90 percent and supply a major portion of the required water in cool weather. Lactating cows will consume much higher amounts of water than non-lactating cows, with the increased water consumption being almost directly proportional to the level of milk production. The water requirement for a 1,000-pound cow is about 10 gallons/day when the air temperature is 40 degrees and about 27 gallons/day at 90 degrees. When temperatures rise from 70 to 95 degrees, an animal’s water requirement can increase 2.5 times. The NRCS has defined the peak demand for watering livestock as 30 gallons per day (at 90 degrees) per 1,000 pounds live weight. The water requirement is related to forage intake; as forage intake increases, so does the water requirement. Mature beef cows will consume only about 3 to 5 pounds of water per pounds of dry matter intake while calves will consume 5 to 7 pounds of water per pound of dry matter. Cattle prefer water at about 90 to 95 degrees.

Tanks or automatic watering systems will provide cleaner, fresher water for livestock, but do cattle really have a preference?

Eldon Cole, livestock specialist with the University of Missouri Extension, said a four-year study showed cattle drink what they want.

“One source of water was from a deep well, other was from nearby ponds that had cattle traffic daily,” he explained. “Water from the ponds was hauled and put in tanks each day from late April through September. Water intake was closely monitored, and animal performance was compared. For three years of the trial, we had one pasture with a buffet setup at the water tank. One tank had pond water in it, the other tank had well water. Most folks still have trouble believing the result. We found absolutely no performance, sickness or visual differences between the crystal-clear water versus the dirty pond water. When the cattle could choose the ‘drink of the day,’ it was essentially a toss up. They drank about the same amount of water from each source.”

He also noted that if a pond is extremely muddy and stagnant, that could certainly have a negative impact on the animal’s health.


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