What’s In Your (Stock) Water?


Source: Beef Cattle Research Council, www.BeefResearch.ca

Beef producers often worry about having too much water or not enough on their farms. However water quality, particularly in fluctuating stock water sources, may go unnoticed. As the summer wears on, evaporation, low rainfall, and consumption can cause the quantity and quality of surface water to dwindle. Meanwhile, hot and dry conditions cause cattle to be at their peak water demand.

“Poor quality drinking water is often a factor that limits intake,” said Leah Clark, livestock specialist with the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture. “When we limit intake we limit production,” she explained in a recent webinar, adding that poor stock water quality can impact animal performance through reduced gains and decreased reproductive success. In severe cases, water quality issues can lead to disease and death. Testing stock water may be particularly important during a drought, when minerals and nutrients can become concentrated as water tables drop in surface or ground water.

There are numerous water factors, such as sodium, sulphates, and nitrates, which can affect production (skip to 5:28 in the recording). Total dissolved solids (TDS) is a common measurement method used to assess these factors. TDS represents the sum of total inorganic salts dissolved in water and includes calcium, chloride, magnesium, iron, and others. Tolerance for TDS varies among classes and types of livestock however the maximum tolerable TDS limit for beef cattle is 4000-5000 mg/L.  

Producers should test their stock water to prevent problems. Often producers use portable hand meters or submit a sample to a lab for analysis (skip to 7:52) but there are some key considerations between the two testing methods. Water tests typically measure electrical conductivity (EC), which is the ability of the water to carry an electric charge. “EC increases with ionic concentration so it can be related to TDS however it is not consistent, therefore each sample will be different. Conductivity is not the same as TDS,” cautioned Clark. A comparison of sample readings from both hand meters and lab units during the 2017 season revealed that there was a wide range of results among devices. Some testing take-home messages are that a lab test is the gold standard for accuracy, and that common conversion factors used to correlate TDS with EC are a weak link.

When beef cattle consume excess amount of sulphates, toxicity and metabolic interference can occur (skip to 14:03).Sulphur interacts with trace minerals, such as copper and molybdenum, which can lead to trace mineral deficiencies which cause fertility and weight gain issues. As well, excess sulphur impacts thiamine synthesis which leads to polio, a potentially deadly disease. Sulphates can be a cumulative problem with sulfur-containing feed ingredients as well, so it is important to consider all dietary sulfur to prevent a wreck.

Table 1. Sulphate interpretation chart for livestock use, courtesy of Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture.

Other components, such as nitrates, sodium, and iron, can cause trouble at elevated levels. With these factors, it’s also important to consider an animals’ total diet, like greenfeed, which can sometimes have elevated levels of nitrates, or salt and mineral supplements, which can compound a sodium problem.

Other anti-quality factors, including bacteria or algae, can cause palatability issues that lead to reduced water intake. Cyanobacteria, commonly referred to as blue green algae, releases a toxin when it dies or becomes stressed. As long as the bacteria is growing, the risk is low, however even a windy day can stress the cyanobacteria, causing it to produce toxins. Dugout treatment is possible however producers must keep animals off of treated water for 10-14 days following application.

While late summer conditions can cause good water to turn poor, and poor water to get worse, producers do have the ability to help prevent water quality problems by developing stock water systems. “It does require commitment and some money, but the biggest key is to test,” Clark maintained.

Implementing a water system can benefit water quality, animal health, production, and the environment. Brenna Grant, manager of Canfax Research Services, shared insight on the benefits and financial opportunities that water systems can provide to livestock operations during the webinar. “Calves that have access to clean, pumped water were on average 18 lb heavier at weaning time,” Grant described, adding this is due in part to increased water palatability and intake. Developing a water system has many other potential benefits, such as:

  • improved herd health;
  • decreased disease risk;
  • water source protection;
  • increased longevity of the water source;
  • enhanced wildlife habitat;
  • improved pasture usage.

The Beef Cattle Research Council developed a water systems calculator for both cow-calf and yearling grasser operations. This decision making tool allows users to estimate the cost of alternative watering systems and determine how long it will take to pay off the initial investment. The calculator compares standard costs of a solar system, windmill system, and pipeline system. Grant is quick to point out, however, there are many different types of systems that can work, and creative producers may be able to reduce their costs by developing systems out of materials they have on hand.

There are many useful resources below, including interpretation tools, water system planning guides, and quality parameters. Being aware about potential water problems, regularly testing stock water, and investigating alternative water systems will provide producers with the information and ideas they need on how to best manage their water worries.


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