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Dangers in Dugouts

By Travis Peardon, PAg, Livestock and Feed Extension Specialist, Outlook

July 2018

A number of factors affect the quality of surface water sources. Nutrient loading from spring or summer run-off, little to no re-charge from a dry spring, animal impact from direct cattle watering, and sub-surface soil or water salinity are but a few of the possibilities.

Many dugouts located in saline areas may be fed from the bottom with saline ground water. The water in these dugouts has naturally high mineral levels to start with and, without fresh water recharge and mineral concentration due to evaporation, producers may find that the mineral content is elevated to levels that are not suitable for use. The only way to know for sure about the mineral content of these water sources is to have your water tested by a lab.  

High sulphate and high sodium levels are the most common problems with livestock water quality. Initial signs to watch for in cattle are refusal to drink and diarrhea. As well, cattle may develop a rough hair coat and lose condition. Most times, elevated sulphates go unnoticed until polio (blindness) occurs. One of the most common issues of high-sulphate water is that cattle will develop secondary micro mineral deficiencies, the most notable being a secondary copper deficiency. Sulphur bonds with copper, making it unavailable to the animal. Copper is a very important trace mineral that plays a large role in reproduction.

Research has found that sulphates at levels of 1,500 ppm or higher can reduce yearling gains by 0.25 lb. per animal per day. In some cases, this scenario can be fixed with a proper mineral program. In cow/calf operations, exposure to elevated sulphates often results in reduced weaning weights and, in some cases, conception problems. A more serious outcome of elevated sulfate exposure is thiamine deficiency, which can lead to nutritional polio characterized by blindness, staggering and death.

High sodium in livestock water may initially cause water refusal due to the salty taste. At very high concentrations, animals may refuse to drink for several days, followed by a period where they drink a large amount at one time and suddenly become sick or die. Any factor causing an increase in water consumption, such as lactation, high air temperatures or exertion, increases the danger of harm from high-sodium water. Animals have the ability to adapt to high-sodium water over time, but an abrupt change from low-sodium to high-sodium water should be avoided.

The first step in dealing with high mineral water is testing the water source. Unfortunately, should a water source contain high levels of sodium or sulfate, it is not cost effective to remove the large amounts of mineral from water in the quantities necessary for livestock production. While in some cases a good mineral program will offset the negative effects of mineral issues, in many cases a new source of water needs to be found.

Monitoring livestock and their water source on a regular basis is a necessary practice. In hot weather, a lactating cow can require more than 65 litres of water per day. Water is the single most important nutrient required by livestock and the quality can have a huge impact on the health of animals and the financial success of any livestock operation.

For more information, contact your Livestock and Feed Extension Specialist or the Agriculture Knowledge Centre at 1-866-457-2377.

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