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Winter water concerns - Water quality affects cattle nutrition

Written by Natasha Wheeler

As hot summer days start to disappear and calves are weaned, water requirements for cattle are typically reduced.

“This is when we utilize some of our winter range or pasture, where cattle can travel further away from the water source to graze,” comments Wyoming Extension Beef Specialist Steve Paisley.

Although consumption goes down, clean water and water access are important considerations at all times of the year.

“Water is the number one nutritional requirement for cattle,” he notes.

In some cases, clean water can be a concern during late summer and early fall when stock pond and reservoir levels are low.

“Total dissolved solids get concentrated down as the water evaporates,” Paisley explains, describing how cattle may ingest a concentrated amount of certain dissolved minerals when they drink from those depleted sources.

“More preferable water sources would include well water, surface water or moving water,” suggests Paisley.

Mineral concerns

In Wyoming, mineral concerns vary depending on location, from areas that don’t typically experience any problems to other areas prone to high concentrations of sulfur, molybdenum or iron.

“These most greatly affect copper absorption, which is important for immunity, disease resistance and overall health,” he remarks.

If cattle health seems to be a concern, water quality may be one factor to investigate.

“We have to evaluate our water sources. Testing our water source is certainly something we can consider,” Paisley comments.

One of the first signs of poor water quality or a lack of water for cattle is reduced feed intake.

“We might not notice it as much in our range cows. If they are out on grass, it’s difficult to pick up on differences in feed intake. But, we certainly notice it when we have animals in confinement and we’re delivering feed to them everyday,” he explains.

In fact, when producers contact Paisley with concerns about reduced feed consumption in their cattle, he investigates water sources and water quality right away.

He remarks, “One of my first troubleshooting points is asking, what is the water situation? Is there available water? Is it clean? Do the cattle have access to it and are they able to drink?”

Cattle health

Poor quality or inadequate supply may also become evident through observations of overall animal health.

“We may notice a problem if calves don’t seem to respond to vaccines like we would expect them to or if we notice a dip in the reproductive rate in our cows,” he notes.

Mineral issues from water sources may manifest themselves in secondary mineral imbalances, affecting the health of the herd.

“It’s something to keep in the back of our minds if we are noticing health issues in our calves or overall herd fertility to troubleshoot where the problem might be,” he says.

Along with water quality, reasonable access to water sources is an important consideration for producers as well.

“Whenever cattle breathe, they are expiring out water, and water is required for many metabolic functions,” Paisley comments.

Cold temperatures

As colder weather moves into Wyoming, producers should be aware of the freezing patterns of available water sources.

“Moving water doesn’t freeze as quickly as stationary water,” he notes.

Rivers or streams will stay open longer than ponds or still bodies of water.

“If we have a tank situation, we can put in a tank heater to keep it open,” he mentions, also pointing out another option. “A lot of ranchers put the well on some kind of timer. The well turns on at certain times, whether the tank is full or not, and the pumping of fresh water into the tank will open it up or clear it for livestock.”

As with other dietary needs, producers should be vigilant and aware that water requirements change for cattle depending on the stage of production and overall ambient temperatures.

“While their water requirements are less and maybe not as critical as during the hot summer months, it’s still important to have a clean water source for cattle,” Paisley remarks.

Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..