Water quality is important in maintaining water consumption of cattle. Physio-chemical (pH, total dissolved solids, hardness, and total dissolved oxygen), organoleptic (odor and taste), compounds present in excess (nitrates, iron, sodium, sulfates, and fluorine), toxic compounds (arsenic, cyanide, lead, mercury, hydrocarbons, organochlorides and organophosphates) and bacteria are criteria for evaluating drink water for humans and livestock.
Surface water supplies to which livestock have ready access are always potential candidates for contamination. Shallow dug wells without good surface drainage away from the well may be subject to infiltration of contaminants. The presence of coliform bacteria in a well is an indication that surface water is finding its way into the well.
Water can serve as a reservoir for many different disease organisms and toxins. Stagnant water contaminated with manure or other nutrients may develop blue-green algae, which can poison livestock, causing muscle tremors, liver damage, and death.
Farm pond water needs to be observed for the presence of algae and other harmful organisms during hot, dry weather.
In 2011, 33 cattle died in Montana from drinking water with toxic concentrations of salt. Water high in salt content can compromise performance and health of cattle in three ways: 1) reduced water and feed intake; 2) toxic levels of sulfur ingestion; and 3) induced trace mineral deficiencies.
Beef cattle may voluntarily consume less poor quality water, which in turn results in reduced consumption of dry matter. Factors that affect water requirements include size of the animal, dry matter intake, physical exertion, lactation, and temperature.
A study conducted by Dr. Trey Patterson, Extension Beef Specialist, South Dakota State University, conducted a series of experiments that evaluated the effects of “salts” in drinking water. Earlier work showed that cattle performance was not depressed when sodium chloride (table salt) was added to cattle drinking water. However, when sodium sulfate was added to drinking water, water consumption was reduced by 35%, feed consumption by 30% and there was more weight loss in heifers compared to heifer’s drinking water without sodium sulfate.
Dr. Cathy Bandyk, published a summary of studies which showed that when dietary sulfur (not sulfate) went from .42 to .65% of dry matter intake, intakes were depressed by 9%, gains were reduced by nearly 12% and carcass weights were reduced by 40 lbs.
Workers at the University of Nebraska showed that when sulfur (not sulfate) in the diet was .46%, the incidence of polio was just .13% but when the diets contained .56% sulfur, over 6% of the cattle exhibited polio.
Water with very high levels of sulfate has been shown to cause a condition called “star gazing” or polio or more correctly polioencephalomalacia (PEM). Symptoms noticed in animals with polio include lethargy, anorexia, blindness, muscle tremors, gastrointestinal stasis, incoordination, staggering, weakness, convulsions and death.
This photograph demonstrates the condition of “star gazing” by a steer which has consumed excessive amounts of sulfate from drinking water.
Salinity of the water is another factor that should be monitored. Salinity refers to the amount of dissolved salts in water and is measured by total dissolved solids. These dissolved salts are primarily sodium chloride but may include carbonates, nitrates, sulfates, calcium, magnesium and potassium. The following Table was adapted from Nutrients and toxic substances in water for livestock and poultry, NAS, 1974.
If there is a question of water quality, it should be tested to obtain optimum production. The following chemical/biological properties should be considered when evaluating the quality of water for livestock: Salinity (Total Dissolved Solids), Sulfates, Nitrates, pH and Coliform levels (Microbiological Properties).
Monitoring water intake for livestock is mandatory for a farm/ranch manager.
Ample supply of good quality water is necessary for maximum production. Consumption of water is determined by many factors and basic life functions require it.
Easy access to quality and plentiful water supplies may increase livestock productivity.