by: Stephen B. Blezinger
Ph.D., PAS

Part 1

Many producers take water for granted. They have ponds in many pastures or they make sure the float valve in the metal stock tank is working properly, keeping the tank full. But what happens if the pond is low or dry or if the flow to the stock tank is interrupted?

Animals can go days and even weeks without food. But without water, life expectancy drops to only a couple of days, possibly even hours if the temperature is exceptionally high or if the animal is stressed to begin with. Over the last few months, with record setting droughts (which, by the way, is NOT over) in many parts of southern United States, many producers have had to face the harsh reality that water can be a very limiting resource. In many cases, producers were required to sell off significant numbers of cattle because they did not have the resources to provide a continuous supply of water to the animals. In many case this was a matter of ponds drying up. In some areas, water wells, some of which had been giving water for decades, failed to pump water because the water table they pulled from had dropped too low.

Some areas face the situation of water supplies that are not of adequate quality having been contaminated by a variety of components including chemicals, excessive nutrients such as Nitrogen or Phosphorus or even pathogenic organisms. Fortunately these issues can often be corrected with time, effort and expenditure of some dollars.

But what all this tells us is that water is a critical nutrient; one that we cannot take for granted. Over the next few issues we will examine a variety of topics related to water supplies, water use, quality, effects in the animal and so on. We will also discuss strategies and processes to insure an adequate and high quality supply for cattle and other agricultural production.


We learned in elementary school that water makes up about 60 percent of the body of an adult mammal (higher in young animals) and involved in almost every bodily process. Water is important for the transport of nutrients between cells and is a critical medium for intracellular metabolism. When listing the nutrient needs of beef cattle, water is often added flippantly (provide plenty of clean fresh water) Despite this apparent disregard, water may be the most important nutrient of all. Water is needed for:

1) Body temperature regulation

2) Digestion, absorption, and utilization of all other nutrients

3) Beef cattle need regular access to clean drinking water for optimum health.

4) There is a positive relationship between access to clean drinking water and growth, reproduction, and milk production.

5) Cattle drinking clean, contaminant-free water are less prone to illness and disease, gain more weight, and produce more milk.

Most cattle producers have at least some control over both the quantity and quality of water that is provided to animals. Monitoring water quality and observing best management practices (BMPs) for water management are effective ways to improve overall animal performance. In fact, if animal performance is not up to par, one of the first places to look is the water supply.

Water Contaminants

Livestock drinking water may be contaminated by a number of agents including minerals (total dissolved solids, (TDS), manure, microorganisms (in some cases these may be pathogenic), and algae. These contaminants can impact the appearance, odor, and taste of drinking water as well as its physical and chemical properties. Some contaminants may directly impact animal health by causing disease and infection. Yet others have a more indirect effect and may cause cattle to decrease their overall water intake. When water intake is suppressed, feed intake will also decrease. When this occurs, pregnant cows will be able to provide less nutrient to the unborn calf thus compromising growth and development, lactating cows will produce less milk, growing cattle will gain less weight. Again, as referenced previously, cattle can survive for as long as sixty days with little or no food, but only seven days without water. In extremely hot, humid climates like the Deep South, that number may be even less.

Other water contaminationproblems can include:

1) When the mineral content of water exceeds safe levels, animal performance will decrease significantly. High levels of sodium can depress water intake and result in weight loss and diarrhea. Animals forced to consume water that is high in sulfur (S) have increased incidences of disease such as polioencephalomacia (PEM) and exhibit symptoms of copper or other trace mineral deficiency. High S in the diet, regardless of the source can create a host of problems.

2) Salinity of water, the concentration of dissolved salts in water, can be expressed as either TDS or TSS (Total Soluble Salts), which is also known as electrical conductivity (EC). Therefore, TDS and conductivity results presented in Table 1 are correlated. This will be discussed in more detail in parts to follow.

3) Electrolytes, or ions that regulate or affect metabolic processes, such as calcium (Ca+), magnesium (Mg+), sodium (Na+), potassium (K+) and chloride (Cl-), contribute to the salinity of water. At high enough levels, these electrolytes can cause toxic effects by themselves or by interfering with the absorption of other important nutrients. Alone, TDS, TSS, or even EC tell us little about the quality of any water sample. However, these are benchmarks that when elevated give us a clue that some minerals may merit further and more precise analysis (Brew, et al, 2009).

4) Manure is a common contaminant in cattle drinking water, particularly when the primary source of water is a pond where cattle may spend a good deal of time loitering. Manure is carried into drinking water on the cattle's hooves and is deposited directly when the animals defecate or urinate. Livestock drinking water that is contaminated with manure can become a concentration for bacterial growth, which can, obviously, cause disease. High levels of bacteria have been found in cattle watering ponds where they may contribute to outbreaks of coliform related illnesses caused by E. coli, E. aerogenes, and Klebsiella species. These can lead to mastitis, urinary tract infections, diarrhea and numerous other nasty and often lethal infections.

5) Contamination of cattle drinking water by feces can feed algae blooms through a process known as nutrient loading, or eutrophication. Blue-green algae are common contaminants in standing water. When ponds become overgrown with algae, cattle will avoid drinking from them in favor of other water sources if available. If not, they will decrease their overall water intake, which results in decreased performance.

6) In addition to blue-green algae, other water-borne microbes can negatively impact animal health. Leptospirosis, which causes reproductive loss in cows, is spread by a microorganism found in water contaminated by urine. The soil-borne microbe believed to be primarily responsible for foot rot (F. necrophorum) can also be spread by consumption of contaminated water.

Considering Drinking Water Management

It is possible for cattle producers to enhance animal health and performance by improving the quality of water provided to their animals. Even small changes in water management may result in improved performance, and certainly the returns realized with decreased potential for illness and disease.

Job One in improving water quality is to perform a thorough evaluation of the current situation. Following are some tips to help guide the development of an on-farm protocol for water quality:

1) Is water offered in adequate quantity for the number and type of cattle in a given area? At least two feet of accessible linear water space is needed per 10 head of cattle.

2) Are watering devices (ponds, fountains, stock tanks, etc.) spaced appropriately and located away from stream banks? Watering devices should be easily accessible by animals. Proper placement of watering devices can influence factors such as grazing, soil compaction, and nutrient deposition patterns.

3) Is water offered fresh or from a pond? Recent research has shown that heifers with access to water pumped from a well or spring gained 23 percent more weight than heifers drinking pond water.

4) How often are watering devices cleaned? Increasing the frequency of cleaning may improve intake and subsequently improve milk production in brood cows.

As part of the overall evaluation process, it may be useful to have the water on your property tested for contaminants. Again, we will cover water testing in greater detail in upcoming parts of this series. But once any existing problems are identified, steps can be taken to improve them. Evaluate water quality regularly in order to ensure a constant supply of high quality drinking water. In the spring of the year while it is relatively cool and prior to potential elevated intake is a good time. This is also a good time to determine options or steps that can be taken in the event of drought conditions.


The quantity and quality of drinking water provided to beef cattle has a significant impact on animal life, health and performance. In the next part of this series we'll take a more in depth look at the various contributing factors. As mentioned, water is the number one nutrient and cannot be taken for granted.

Dr. Steve Blezinger is a nutritional and management consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, TX. He can be reached by phone at (903) 352-3475 or by e-mail at [email protected] You can also follow us on Facebook at Reveille Livestock Concepts.

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