Water is the key for healthy animals

Livestock producers, who typically look closely at every single input to make sure that they will get the best results out of their livestock, may be overlooking possible problems by not testing their animals’ drinking water.

“Livestock require a large amount of water,” said Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension Service Agriculture Educator Roger Williams. “You want to make sure that there is nothing in the water to hamper the performance of the animal.”

Livestock require a balance of water, carbohydrates, protein, vitamins and minerals for optimal performance. Of these key nutrients, water is the most important for all classes of livestock.

Water supplies can become contaminated by agricultural chemicals or other natural substances that can be harmful to overall performance of livestock. Some of these substances include nitrates, salinity and algae.

“Nitrates can definitely be harmful to cattle in certain forages,” said University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Agent Colin Massey. “Nitrate is not poisonous, but it is converted to nitrite in their body, which can do harm.”

High levels of nitrates are common in well water around large agricultural practices, as they easily make their way into ground water.

Another factor to consider is algae. Algae can have major effects on livestock performance.

Algae grow best in nutrient-rich bodies of water during the late summer. Algae are especially common in stagnant bodies of water, such as ponds. Harmful algae blooms, commonly known as blue-green algae, can be extremely harmful to cattle and can lead to death. The best way to control algae is to eliminate their nutrient source.

“If someone notices a large amount of algae, they should have it identified,” said Massey.

Water with a high salinity can lead to lower rate of growth for livestock as well.

Williams said that animals may not prefer water that is high salinity because it can be too salty. This decrease in water intake can directly impact the growth rate of the animals. If water with a high salinity is used in combination with a supplement also containing salt, supplement intake can be reduced, leading to a mineral and protein deficiency for the animal.

As agriculture expands into more urban areas, water problems are becoming more common. Chemical runoff from non-agricultural sources has become a new challenge for modern day ranchers.

“If you are around an urban area, the first-flush runoff could be carrying a lot of oil or grease,” said Massey. “There could be septic tanks upstream that could carry a lot of E. Coli or coliform.”

One of the most important ways to know what is in the water, is to know where the water comes from.

“Always know what is going on upstream,” said Massey. “We would recommend a vegetated buffer area between where you spray (herbicides and pesticides) and your water source.”

A University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture also recommends only applying nitrogen fertilizers to areas that soil test have said are necessary, and using forage systems to help decrease the need for added nitrogen.

Other concerns ranchers should have when it comes to water is the spread of disease. The U of A recommends that cattle not have unlimited access to ponds and streams. Cattle tend to use these water sources for loafing, which will introduce urine and fecal matter into the water source. Water quality will decrease over time, leading to a higher risk of algae, increasing incidences of leptospirosis and mastitis among animals.


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