Water Quality and Availability

Reduced water intake reduces livestock performance quicker and more dramatically than nutrient deficiency. And it is not only water availability, but also water quality that has a very significant role to play in livestock performance.

Water is used for the digestion, absorption and utilization of feed nutrients. It also regulates body temperature. Livestock with access to clean water will spend more time grazing, and therefore overall performance will be improved.

When it comes to assessing your livestock’s access to water sources and the quality of the water being provided, consider the following:

  • An Alberta/BC, Canada study found that calves with cows with access to clean drinking water gained 9% more weight than calves with cow and drinking directly from ponds and dugouts;
  • The same study found that yearlings gained 23% more weight when drinking clean water versus yearlings drinking from ponds and dugouts;
  • The above results were found to be directly correlated to suppressed feed intake because of contaminated water;
  • A Wyoming, USA study found that cattle do 77% of their grazing within 1,200 feet of their water source. In this study, approximately 65% of the pasture was more than 2,400 feet from water but only supported 12% of the grazing usage;
  • A Missouri, USA study found that pasture utilization drops to below 10% when the distance to water is more than 1,100 ft (see graph below, by Jim Gerrish);
  • This same study found that pasture carrying capacity can be increased by 14% simply by keeping cattle within 800 feet of water;
  • An Alberta/BC, Canada study found that cattle consumed:
    • 0.36 gal of water for each lb of dry matter consumed at 5 oC, or 9.4 gal per AU,
    • 0.84 gal of water for each lb of dry matter consumed at 25 oC, or 21.8 gal per AU.
    Note: A standard animal unit (AU) is 26 lb of dry matter forage, and a 1,400 lb cow has an AU index of 1.4;
  • Metabolism generates heat, and drinking water dissipates heat.
  • Cattle’s comfort zone is generally between 5 oC and 25 oC, and that the consumption of dry matter can decrease by up to 40% at temperatures of 40 oC, and increases as the temperature decreases;
  • A Chilean study found that beef cattle drank 2 to 7 times per day with 80% of the drinking occurring between 10:00 am and 10:00 pm, and that increased drinking frequency was correlated to increased temperatures; and
  • A grazing cow returns to the pasture 77% of the nitrogen, 66% of the phosphorus, and 92% of the potassium she eats. The Missouri, USA study found that this return of nutrients to the pasture is in locations not beneficial to plant growth, e.g., around water and shade sources. Soil testing showed that when water was less than 500 feet from the furthest part of the pasture the nutrient distribution was generally uniform.

water quality

These observations and research results clearly show the importance of providing ready access to clean, high quality water.

In addition, livestock water development is essential for implementing management-intensive grazing practices. Water availability is often the limiting factor in improving pasture management practices that can lead to improved livestock performance.

Water contamination is often the result of manure and urine getting into the water supply, especially in dugouts and creeks. But water can also be contaminated by minerals and metals dissolved in the water (e.g., salts, sulphur), micro-organisms, algae and spills/runoff (e.g., petroleum, pesticides, fertilizer). Water contamination is generally more prevalent in dugouts, creeks, and streams in late summer due to reduced volumes and increased temperatures.

Reduced water consumption results in reduced feed intake, as contaminates impact the taste and odour of the water. Some points to note:

  • High levels of manure and urine contamination in the water supply suppresses both water and feed intake, resulting in lower gains;
  • Manure and urine contamination can also lead to coliform outbreaks that can result in mastitis, urinary tract infections, leptospirosis, diarrhea, foot rot, and other potentially lethal infections;
  • Sulphates (SO4) dissolved in water in concentrations greater than 8,000 mg/l can reduce water intake by as much as 20%;
  • Blue-green algae toxicity causes general weakness, variable hyperthermia, reduced responsiveness, anorexia, mental derangement and death; and
  • A University of Florida study found that livestock with prolonged exposure to contaminated water were more prone to illness over the course of their life and had poorer overall reproductive health than livestock continually exposed to clean water.

Water testing is necessary to understand the quality of water that you are providing to your livestock. The following links provide information of what components in the water should be tested for, how water sampling should be done, and some labs that can do the analysis:

Canfax Research Services has published a fact sheet on the impact of water quality on livestock and the benefits and economics of different types of watering systems. The fact sheet can be found here:

The Beef Cattle Research Council provides an on-line water systems calculator for cow-calf operations and yearling grazers. The calculator can be found here:

System Design

In developing a livestock watering system there are many aspects to consider. The following checklist provides some guidance:

  • Water quality (that may be a function of the time of year),
  • Water flow rate,
  • Water temperature,
  • Number of waterers, working waterers and volume requirements per waterer,
  • Pump type and pump pressure,
  • Pressure regulation,
  • Reserve capacity (e.g., holding tank)
  • Elevation changes,
  • Line size and pressure drop,
  • Flow control switches and valves,
  • Filters and treatment systems, and
  • Bleed points.

For more complex watering system designs, e.g., a single source and multiple working watering locations, it is necessary to design the system to balance flow rates with system pressure drops to ensure that the required amount of water will be delivered to the working waterers.

For example, in the watering system design below, it is necessary to balance pressure drops due to line losses with pressure drops/gains due to elevation changes for the required flow rate needed at each waterer. For example, it is required to know that water flow is delivered to the NE-2 Waterer and the SW-1 Waterer during the period of July 12 to August 2. This requirement also applies for the other pasture use options considered below.

water quality

For the StockBoss Waterer, the supply pressure at the inlet to the waterer determines the flow rate. The graph below shows the flow rate vs inlet pressure for a double bowl StockBoss. A minimum pressure of 8 to 10 psi is required at the inlet of the StockBoss, and it has been designed for a maximum pressure of about 90 psi. (Typical water systems are designed to operate in the range of 30 to 60 psi.)

water quality

As an example, with a constant inlet pressure of 50 psi, the water flow rate into the double bowl StockBoss Waterer will be 14.25 gpm. This flow rate can provide enough water for approximately 340 head. This assumes a 30 gal per head consumption requirement and a 12 hour per day drinking period. To avoid crowding conditions around the waterer with this amount of loading, StockBoss recommends that a double-bowl plus a single bowl satellite be installed.

StockBoss can help you with the design of your system. Please contact 1-833-662-2449 to enquire how we can help you.