Connecting water quality to digestion in dairy cows


CHAZY, New York — Water quality is critical to maintain healthy, productive dairy cows.

Eighteen farms in the Northern New York region participated in research funded by the farmer-driven Northern New York Agricultural Development Program evaluating the impact of water quality on fiber digestion in dairy cows.

Researchers with the W.H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute in Chazy, New York, sampled and analyzed water from participating farms for factors such as minerals, pH, hardness, sulfates, nitrates, and bacteria.


“To evaluate how water quality, specifically levels of mineral, nitrate or bacteria, affects dairy cow fiber digestion, the water samples were used to conduct fiber digestion analyses of a variety of forages, including corn silages, alfalfa hay, grass silage, and wheat straw,” says Miner Institute Forage Lab Director Kurt Cotanch.

Previous research conducted in South Dakota has indicated that low water quality, defined as water having mineral, bacterial or other compound levels above a prescribe ‘normal’ range, could decrease fiber digestion.

Other research has shown that high concentrations of sulfur or iron can produce unpleasant taste or odor that may cause cows to decrease water intake and may result in decreased milk production.


None of the water samples collected for the Northern New York Agricultural Development Program project were of poor quality, Cotanch says.

The results of the fiber digestion analyses in Northern New York indicated a slight positive correlation between sodium and nitrate levels and fiber digestion; a slight negative correlation was found with magnesium and potassium.

For example, the digestibility of conventional corn silage was significantly reduced as magnesium levels in water samples increased, while an increase in sodium level showed a moderate increase in the fiber digestibility of some forages, including grass silage.

‘Water quality deserves consideration for the nutrients the water can provide in dairy ration formulation, and for potential negative nutritional and palatability factors that could inhibit water consumption. How water quality affects fiber digestion is an area for further exploration,’ Cotanch said.

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The report titled Do High Mineral Concentrations in Water Affect Fiber Digestibility, Cow Health and Performance on Northern New York Dairy Farms is posted on the Northern New York Agricultural Development Program website,

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