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Water Quality - Why Should I Care?

Colby Elford BSc. PAg, Regional Livestock Specialist, Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture

January 2017

Water is the most important nutrient for cattle!

Water is the single most important nutrient for livestock. It is the most abundant component in the body. A calf’s body is made up of 75 to 80 per cent water, and a mature animal is about 60 per cent water. An animal may last a week or more without food, but will perish in a matter of days without water. Water is needed for almost every single function in the animal; everything from metabolism, to thermoregulation, to immune response. It should go without saying, then, that an adequate supply of clean good quality water is necessary to the health of all animals.

Water quality is notoriously poor in southern Saskatchewan.

There are many water sources that are good for livestock. However, many more have quality issues or are unsuitable for livestock. For example, Livestock Water Quality: A Field Guide for Cattle, Horses, Poultry and Swine states that more than 45 per cent of Saskatchewan surface-water sources have sulphate levels that will affect animal performance. About 17 per cent of the groundwater in Saskatchewan exceeds the Canadian sulphate guidelines for livestock (1,000 mg/L). In many cases, it is unrealistic to test all of the water sources that animals may be using. However, it is a good idea to test the main sources, especially winter water sources, to see if they fall within the recommended guidelines.

Poor water quality and animal performance.

It is difficult to estimate the dollar value of having good quality water versus poor. The Western Beef Development Centre near Lanigan, Sask., has done some research on this subject. They reported an increase in average daily gains of animals that have access to better-quality water. Other studies in Alberta have also shown improved weight gains with cows drinking clean water compared to those animals that only have direct access to the source. In the Western Beef Development Centre study, steers that were provided water from a trough gained more weight than those drinking from a dugout. Since beef producers get paid by the pound, that represents a significant increase in production with minimal input costs.

It is also quite well documented in literature that high sulphates – our most common water quality issue – can result in a decrease of average daily gains in beef cattle, sometimes by as much as 50 per cent in extreme cases (Water Quality for Wyoming Livestock and Wildlife). In many cases, excess sulphur in the diet will intact with essential nutrients. This can cause many non-specific metabolic disorders that will affect animal performance.

One of the most common issues of high sulphur water is that cattle will develop secondary micro mineral deficiencies. The most notable being a copper deficiency. Sulphur bonds with copper, making it unavailable to the animal. Copper is a very important trace mineral. Signs of copper deficiency vary and may include:

  • Rough hair coat;
  • Scours;
  • Reduced growth rate; and
  • Weight loss.

Copper is a very important mineral for reproduction. Animals that have a copper deficiency often have difficulty being bred. They often display delayed puberty as adolescents, as well as reduced fertility, low ovulation rates and low conception rates as cows. Calves born to copper-deficient cows might suffer from an inability to suckle and poor coordination.

I have poor water quality; now what?

Since high dietary sulphur may cause death, trace mineral deficiencies, diarrhea, and reduced production efficiencies, locating a reliable water source that is low in sulphates, if available, will set your herd up for success. Realistically this is not always possible. When a water test shows that a source is less than ideal, there are two options:

  1. Don't use that water source.
  2. Change your management to reduce the impact of the poor water quality.

In cases where the water quality is poor but still useable, producers should be ensuring that their animals are getting good intake of a mineral supplement with high levels of copper. In some situations, a chelated trace mineral is warranted. Chelated trace minerals are formulated to be absorbed differently than typical trace mineral products. They are often more expensive, but usually well worth the price in poor water quality situations. Regardless of type or brand of mineral used, the most important thing to consider is intake. Ensure that your cows are consuming the product at the recommended rate. If they aren’t, it may be time to make a change.

Sometimes changing management means using that water source in a different way. Some producers have found that they are unable to use certain pastures for cows pre-breeding or during the breeding season because the high sulphate levels will have a negative impact on their conception rates. Pastures with these water sources might be better suited for use at a different time of the year or for a different class of cattle.

Water quality is an important and often overlooked factor in livestock production. Being aware of the problem is the first step. If performance has been an issue in the past, a water test may be a good place to start. Knowing what is in the water will help managers tailor a mineral program that will fit their needs. It may also provide insight in to how that water source should be used in the future.

For more information on this topic, please contact the Ministry of Agriculture’s Agriculture Knowledge Centre at 1-866-457-2377.

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