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What You Need to Know About Water Quality Going into Spring

By Alexis DeCorby, BSA, AAg, Livestock and Feed Extension Specialist, Humboldt and

Catherine Lang, BSA, AAg, Livestock and Feed Extension Specialist, Moose Jaw


Sulphate levels graph

Water is arguably the most important nutrient for cattle, but is often overlooked. Water is essential for an animal's basic functions and it's directly related to feed intake. Feed intake impacts weight gain, milk production and, ultimately, animal health. However, many producers don't monitor water quality because cattle appear to be healthy when drinking it, or the water was good when checked a number of years ago.

The problem with these assumptions is that water quality can change quickly, especially surface water. One of the key water quality issues in Saskatchewan is the presence of sulphates. High sulphate levels have been linked to low fertility rates, trace mineral deficiencies, decreased immune status, loss of hair pigment, poor growth performance, polioencephalmalacia (PEM) and, in extremely high levels, death.

In summer, cows will consume approximately 64 to 95 litres (14-21 imperial gallons) per day, depending on weather. To put this into perspective, a sample of water that is marginally high in sulphates in the winter could prove toxic in the summer. This is due to increased consumption of water, which leads to a greater amount of sulphates being consumed.

As water evaporates in the summer, the concentration of dissolved constituents increases. The Moose Jaw Regional Office has been monitoring several dugouts for the last few years. Of particular interest is a dugout located in the Old Wives Community Pasture. Over the last three years, this dugout has been monitored weekly throughout the spring and into the fall. As shown in the chart, each year the dugout becomes unusable at some point during the grazing season. It is recommended that cattle consume water containing below 2,000 mg/L of sulphate. The symptoms noted above can occur at sulphate concentrations below 2,000 mg/L.

Dugout - Old Wives
Old Wives Dugout, May 7, 2020. This photo
shows how low the dugout was in the spring.

Although snowfall has been minimal the past few winters, there has been enough winter runoff to refresh the dugout and lower the concentration of sulphates to make the dugout usable in the spring. The recent lack of rain over the summer, coupled with hot days and with poor moisture over winter, likely contributed to water quality decreasing faster over the year. These rapid changes show how monitoring your livestock's water quality is more important than ever.

In partnership with the Roy Romanow Provincial Laboratory in Regina, the Ministry of Agriculture facilitates water analysis for Saskatchewan livestock producers. This service only provided for water being used for livestock, and clients must have a Premises Identification Number. This service can be accessed at any of the 10 Ministry of Agriculture Regional Offices in Saskatchewan.

You may be wondering; how do I submit a sample? Collect a representative sample in a clean bottle or container that can hold at least one litre of water. Label it with your name, the date and the name of the water source. If you're not planning on delivering the sample immediately, the sample should be refrigerated, but avoid freezing it. Deliver the sample as soon as possible to get an accurate snapshot of the water quality at that time.

When you submit a water sample through your local regional office, the livestock and feed extension specialist will screen it for an initial conductivity reading to estimate water quality. Conductivity is quickly measured and related to overall water quality. Generally, when conductivity is high, water is of poorer quality. This reading doesn't give an exact analysis of the water sample, but provides a quick estimation of water quality. The only way to know for sure what is in the water and if it is safe for livestock is a full lab analysis. Once the lab results are received by your livestock and feed extension specialist, they contact you to discuss the results.

In the fall of 2020, we surveyed producers who had water analyzed within the past year. The results from this survey demonstrate that water quality is extremely important in Saskatchewan. Ninety-nine per cent of respondents rated water quality monitoring as valuable, or very valuable. The bulk of water concerns and testing occurred during the summer months. Winter water sources cannot be disregarded, and should be monitored as well.

Almost all producers who used the service made some sort of operational change based on the specialist's recommendation. Most often, it was discontinuing the use of that water source (59.6 per cent) or making changes to their mineral program (48.1 per cent). Some producers reported higher conception rates and increased weaning weights, ultimately improving the profitability of their operation.

Managing water quality on your livestock operation can improve profit margins. As we head into the spring and summer months, it is important to test your water sources to get a baseline for quality. If your samples are marginal in the spring, your local livestock and feed extension specialist can help you develop a management plan to use these water sources. If the water is not usable, you can be put in touch with an agriculture programs specialist to learn about resources and programs to develop new water sources.

For more information contact your closest Regional Office or call the Agriculture Knowledge Centre at 1‑866‑457‑2377.

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