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Snow as a Water Source

Livestock require five basic nutrients for maintenance and production.

  • Protein
  • Energy
  • Vitamins
  • Minerals
  • Water

Of these, water is the most important. 

The requirement for water is based on livestock species, breed, animal status and activity level, production mode (growth, pregnancy, lactation or maintenance), environment, and climate: 

  • Beef cattle require 22 to 75 litres of water per day;
  • Sheep require nine to 13; and
  • Horses require 35 to 50.

In the spring and summer, livestock get a substantial amount of their daily water requirement from lush pastures, but what happens when winter rolls around?

Snow as a water source for cattle and sheep

Studies in Alberta have shown that beef cows eating snow as a water source experience no loss of production or performance when compared to those cows drinking liquid water. Similar studies show similar results for dry ewes. 

Cows can graze through or consume snow depending on snow depth and softness, their past experience, and finding enough good quality feed as a reward.

Sheep can also paw and graze through snow.

Water supplementation is required if there are shortfalls in snow depth or structure, but where there is enough of the correct type of snow, cows and sheep can consume snow as a replacement for water during the winter. However, lactating cows and ewes have higher water requirements and should have access to clean fresh water, to avoid losing condition and body weight;

Proper nutrition and adequate shelter are also key to maintaining condition and health.

Snow as a water source for horses

Horses on the other hand require a lot of water to digest dry feed.

Horses will often reduce their water intake as temperatures fall. This reduced water intake, combined with increased forage consumption can lead to a greater incidence of impaction and colic.

Horses can and will consume some snow through the winter.

Forcing a horse to produce moisture by eating snow is counterproductive in these ways:

  • It can take six to ten times as much snow to provide an equal amount of liquid water; and
  • Calories are used to melt the snow that should be used for body warmth, condition, maintenance and overall health.

Animals prefer clean snow that has not been trampled, wind-blown or crusted. If you aren't in an area with sufficient soft clean snow, animals must have access to liquid water.

Access to clean fresh water is a must for horses and other non-ruminants, while cattle and sheep are capable of consuming snow as a water source provided the conditions are right and it is before lactation begins.

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