Start thinking: Water for livestock


Studies have consistently shown that livestock dry matter intake is related to water consumed. The more dry matter consumed, the more weight calves can put on and the more milk the momma cow can give.

Installing a sufficient water system using troughs, ponds or other means is key to a good grazing system and the farm manager can then effectively control grazing heights and provide proper rest periods for the plants.

Water in the body performs many functions — 60-80 percent of the animals live body weight is water.

Water helps to eliminate waste products of digestion and metabolism, regulate blood osmotic pressure, helps produce milk and saliva, transport nutrients, hormones and other chemical messages within the body, and aid in temperature regulation through evaporation of water from the skin and respiratory tract. Limiting water intake will reduce animal performance quicker and more drastically than any other nutrient deficiency.

Access to cool, clean drinking water is essential to keep an animal’s internal body temperature within normal limits. As water temperature increases from 70 degrees F to 95 degrees F, total water requirements for each animal will increase by about 2.5 times.


What about drinking space? If group watering occurs, the tank should hold a minimum of 25 percent of the daily herd requirement and allow 5 to 10 percent of the animals to drink at one time, providing a space of two feet per head. (Example 40 head [cows and calves] x 10 percent = 4 head drinking at a time x 2’/head = 8′ trough [one side].)

Tank refill time should be no more than one hour. When livestock travel individually to water, a tank that allows 2 to 4 percent of the animals to drink at one time and a flow rate that provides total daily needs in four hours is needed (Bartlett, 1996).

Drinking space and volume of water are important considerations to assure slow or timid animals adequate time to drink before the herd leaves the watering area.

Water quality

Multiple studies have shown additional weight gain when livestock have high quality water to drink. A heifer study at the University of Florida research has shown that heifers with access to water pumped from a well or spring gained 23 percent more weight than heifers drinking pond water.

In a study at Mississippi State, researchers have documented a 9 percent higher weight gain in nursing calves where the drinking water of the cow-calf pairs came from a trough compared to cattle 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.

A Montana State study showed that 76 percent of beef cattle allowed free access to a pond for water, or water from the same source placed into a trough, preferred the trough over drinking from the pond. Also, livestock drinking from a trough have less risk of contracting illness compared to drinking from a pond.


What causes algae growth in ponds and water troughs? Nutrients from runoff and leaching, feed and decaying plant material (nitrogen and phosphorus).

Fecal contamination of pond water and entry of other nutrients can cause algae blooms through a process known as nutrient loading.

When ponds become overgrown with algae, cattle will avoid drinking from them in favor of other water sources, if any exist.

Filamentous Green Algae — the green algae are common in lakes and certain types form green, stringy, often slimy-feeling masses that are a result of high levels of nutrients. These are actually long strands, or filaments, composed of thousands of individual single-celled green algae connected end-to-end.

Typical growth begins underwater on the edges of ponds or trough where sunlight penetrates to the bottom.

As growth continues gases are trapped under the algae mat and will slowly rise until it reaches the surface.

Blue-Green Algae/Cyanobacteria — blue-green algae were once included with the other algae, but it is now classified with bacteria, called cyanobacteria.

Under nutrient rich conditions, these microscopic single-celled organisms can multiply rapidly to form extensive “blooms” that cause the water to become green colored. They may eventually float to the surface and accumulate near shore as a thin bright green surface scum.

It does not bond together or form a mat like filamentous green algae. When a bloom dies, the water surface may become colored with a mixture of bright blue and white material, often mistaken for a paint spill.

When a bloom occurs, some blue-green algae contribute to potential health and water quality problems. A few species occasionally produce toxins known to kill wildlife and domestic animals.

Algae control in troughs or tanks. Algae can clog overflows or possibly create toxic conditions in a livestock water trough. Sunlight and warm temperatures, combined with nutrients, may promote algae growth until control measures need to be implemented.

Periodically cleaning the tank to reduce nutrients slows algae growth.

Apply copper sulfate crystals (see chart) to control algae growth (Snyder Industries Inc.). Apply every 2 to 4 weeks as needed. Dissolve crystals in warm water and pour throughout the tank to achieve best results.

Note: Using copper sulfate in systems with metal pipes may increase deterioration of the metal over time and some livestock, such as sheep, cannot tolerate high levels of copper because it builds up in their system. Keep added copper levels to a minimum to reduce the chance of toxicity.

Chlorine bleach is another option to help reduce algae growth. Each week add 2 to 3 ounces of chlorine bleach for each 50 gallons of water capacity in the tank. Bleach (without scents) are recommended.

Copper sulfate or chlorine applications do not require livestock to be kept away from the tank, but best results are obtained if the active ingredients concentration is maintained for at least 5 minutes.

Withholding livestock access for the recommended time may achieve better results.

October is a great time of year to install spring developments or water systems. Good quality, accessible water is a commodity you never have too much of. If you have a wet place in a field or paddock this time of year, chances are, it would make a good spring development.

More information about spring developments, tank volume measurements and the construction process go to Ohio State University Extension.


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