How many times during the day do you become thirsty and hunt a glass of clean water? Cattle also get thirsty and require significantly more water than we do. Doctors recommend that we drink six to eight glasses (3/8 to ½ gallon) of good quality water per day to remain healthy. Paul Guyer, University of Nebraska, estimated that both cows nursing calves and bulls require 20 gallons of water per day during a daily high temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit. He estimated that dry and bred cows require 15 gallons per day in the same weather conditions. Do you think your cows are thirsty?
“Livestock require the proper balance of water, carbohydrates (energy), protein, vitamins and minerals for optimal levels of performance,” said Shane Gadberry, University of Arkansas. “Of these nutrients, water is the most critical for all classes of livestock.”
“Cattle have little ability to adapt to water restriction, and feed intake will be greatly reduced following only short periods without water,” Gadberry continued. “Because of this, a plentiful supply of good quality water is necessary for profitable beef production.”
Dirty water causes problems.
“Manure is a common contaminant in cattle drinking water, particularly when the primary source of water is a pond where cattle may spend a good deal of time loitering,” stated Jeffery Carter, University of Florida. “Manure is carried into drinking water on cattle’s hooves and is deposited directly when the animals defecate. Livestock drinking water contaminated with manure can become a hotspot for bacterial growth, which in turn can cause animal disease. High levels of bacteria have been found in cattle watering ponds where they may contribute to outbreaks of coliform related illnesses caused by E. coli, E. aerognes and Klebsiella species. Exposure to these organisms can lead to mastitis, urinary tract infections, diarrhea and numerous other infections which are often lethal.”
Fecal contamination of livestock drinking water can cause algae blooms through a process known as nutrient loading, or eutrophication. Blue-green algae are common contaminants in standing water. When ponds become overgrown with algae, cattle will avoid drinking from them in favor of other water sources, if any exist. If no other source of fresh drinking water is available, they will decrease their overall water intake, which results in poorer performance.
“In addition to blue-green algae, other water-borne microbes can negatively impact animal health,” continued Carter. “Leptospirosis, which causes reproductive loss in cows, is spread by a microorganism found in water contaminated by urine. The soil-borne microbe believed to be primarily responsible for foot rot (F. necrophorum) can also be spread by consumption of contaminated water.”
Benefits of an Above-Ground Livestock Watering System
A demonstration project was conducted by Gene Surber and colleagues at Montana State University to observe several aspects of above-ground water sources with the following objectives:
1) Determine if cattle show a preference for trough water versus direct drinking from a pond.
2) Determine if availability of a trough would have any affect on shoreline vegetation versus a pond that feeds an above-ground watering container. Shoreline vegetation is important for filtering solids from water that runs into the pond.
3) Determine if there are water quality differences between the trough, the pond from which the trough was filled and a pond with no trough.
“During the summer of 1996, cattle at three sites were given a choice of drinking from ponds or troughs located 50 to 150 feet from the ponds,” Surber reported. “Water in the trough was supplied via gravity flow or a solar pumping system from the same pond. No fencing was used to limit access to any of the pond water sources. The cattle had a choice of drinking from the pond or the trough. Two-hundred-thirty-two cattle drinking observations were recorded during daylight hours on 24 different days from July through mid-September. These observations were made in a three-pasture rotation where the solar pumping system was available at one pond in each rotation.”
Nearly 80 percent of the observed cows and calves showed a preference for trough water over pond water. Cattle exhibited a learning curve, and began to look for the trough toward the end of the season. Calves demonstrated the most interest in the trough and were its most consistent users.
“More residue was left on the shorelines of the pond with a nearby trough,” said Surber. “Total suspended solids (TSS) were much lower (2mg/L) in the trough compared to the ponds (50mg/L). Other water quality parameters, such as electrical conductivity, pH, total dissolved solids, nitrate-nitrogen, calcium, potassium, magnesium and sodium, displayed little difference.”
Researchers have documented a nine percent higher weight gain in nursing calves where the drinking water for the cow-calf pairs came from a trough compared to pairs drinking directly from a pond. Steers in the same study with access to water troughs instead of ponds demonstrated a 16 to 19 percent increase in weight. Research in Alberta, Canada (1995) showed a 23 percent increase in weight gains over 71 days for yearling steers drinking well water versus those drinking from a pond. A 1993 study showed a 20 percent weight increase in cattle that drank water pumped from a pond into a trough compared to those that drank directly out of a pond.
A producer might find it profitable to install above-ground water systems if the above weight gains can be expected. A five percent weight gain due to good quality water would yield 25 extra pounds on a 500 pound steer. If steers of this size are selling for $1.55 per pound, good quality water would add $38.75 value to each steer. One hundred steers would sell for an added $3,875 which would likely cover the cost of a solar-operated submergible pump, 150 feet of piping and a concrete water trough.
Each producer needs to calculate their own cost and returns, but it appears that above-ground watering systems can pay for themselves through cattle weight gains. There is also the additional benefit of less disease due to the higher quality water.