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Snow as a Water Source for Wintering Livestock

By Jenifer Heyden, M. Sc., PAg, Livestock & Feed Extension Specialist, North Battleford

December 2020

cattle grazing in winter
Cattle grazing in winter

Livestock require five basic nutrients for maintenance and production. Those five nutrients are protein, energy, vitamins, minerals and water. Of these, water is the most important. In the spring and summer livestock get a substantial amount of their daily requirement from lush pastures but in winter, there are no lush pastures.

The requirement for water is based on livestock species and 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 litres and horses require 35 to 50 litres. Hot summer days with temperatures above 32 C will result in two and a half to four times the water consumption of days in fall, winter and spring when temperatures dip below zero degrees.

Studies in Alberta have shown that beef cows eating snow as a water source experience no loss of production or performance when compared to cows drinking water. Studies show similar results for dry ewes. The ruminant digestive system allows heat to be produced during digestion and the activity of feeding melts the snow, bringing the resulting water up to body temperature. In a swath grazing situation where snow is present, cattle will get a mouthful of snow with each bite of forage. Cows can graze through snow depending on depth, softness and experience finding enough good quality feed. Sheep paw and can also 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, depending on their stage of production. Proper nutrition and adequate shelter are also key to maintaining condition and health. On page 13 of the Beef Cattle Code of Practice, snow may not be used as the sole water source for lactating cows, newly-weaned calves, animals with a body condition score of less than 2.5 out of five or for cattle that do not have access to optimal feed resources. In addition, the code of practice requires that snow be of adequate quantity and cleanliness, and that it be monitored on an ongoing basis. Have a back-up plan and an additional source of water in the event that snow quality or quantity is compromised.

Horses 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. However, forcing a horse to take in moisture by eating snow is counterproductive. Six to ten times as much snow must be eaten to provide an equal amount of water. Furthermore, calories being consumed are then used to melt the snow when they should be used for creating body warmth, maintaining body condition and promoting overall health.

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

For more information on this or other related topics please contact your local regional office, call the Agriculture Knowledge Centre at 1-866-457-2377.

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