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The Clean Water Advantage

The Clean Water Advantage

Water Quality Counts

Water is probably the most undervalued and misunderstood part of pasturing livestock.

First Limiting Factor

Water quality is important because livestock will only gain up to the first limiting factor. If that first limiting factor is water quality which directly influences consumption, it doesnít matter what type of grass youíve got on your pasture because the cows just wonít gain anymore than the water will allow.

Economic advantage

Once we get through this and you pencil out the economic advantage you get by watering your cattle from troughs instead of dugouts youíll see that water troughs, pipe lines and pumps can make help your cattle earn you more money.

As much as ranching is a way of life itís also about making a living and preparing the land for the next generation. Making a living at the ranching business is getting tougher every year so you need to use all the advantages you can. Good water on pasture is one of those things that a lot of ranchers, except those of you who are here today, have a tendency to overlook. Building a watering system thatís durable enough to pass on to the next generation is going to be a good investment.

Supporting Research and Science

The science behind this presentation comes from work done by Walter D. Willms and other scientists including: O. Kenzie, T.A.McAllister1, D. Colwell, D. Veira, J. Wilmshurst, and R. Beck, who all work on this type of research at Agriculture Canada Research stations in Alberta and Saskatchewan a little north of Montana.

Livestock Water Facts Chart

Type of Livestock



Gal./day L/day Gal./day L/day
Milking Cows 20 77 25 95
Cow-calf pairs 13 50 18 68
Dry cows 9.5 36 14.4 55
Calves 6 23 9.5 36
Growing Cattle (400 - 800 lb / 180 - 360 kg) 6 - 9.5 23 - 26 9.5 - 14.5 36 - 55
Finishing Cattle (600 - 1200 lb / 270 - 540 kg) 14.5 55 23 86
Bulls 9.5 36 14.5 55
Horses 9.5 36 14.5 55
Sheep 1 3.6 3.7 14
Notice the difference between summer and winter water requirements.
  • How many people can name other factors that affect water requirements?
  • How many people know what influences water consumption which is different from requirements?

Other Factors Affecting Water Requirements

  • Size and type of animal
  • Physiological state (pregnant, lactating, growing): lactating cows need more water for milk production, so water intake during the latter stages of pregnancy can be 30 - 50% higher than normal
  • Activity level: more active animals consume more water
  • Type and amount of diet: animals fed on dry feed will require more water than those fed on silage or lush grass
  • Weather conditions: water consumption increases as air temperature increases
  • Water quality: more palatable water or greater total salt intake will result in increased water consumption
  • Ease of access: animals will consume less water if they have to travel further to the source, or if access to the source is awkward and uncomfortable.

The Biggest Factor Affecting Water Consumption is Contamination

The palatability of water can be confused with toxicity from algae or associated with salts that decrease water intake at high concentrations (Embry et al. 1959). Response to these factors may be associated with physiological effects and not necessarily to preference or avoidance due to smell or taste.

Perhaps the most predictable factor reducing the palatability of water is contamination by feces, yet very few studies have examined the effect this has on water consumption. Holechek (1980) reported a decrease in water consumption and animal weight gain from cattle drinking from a water source contaminated by feces and urine.

On the other hand, Crawford et al. (1996) reported no difference in weight gain of cattle drinking water from a pond to which they had direct access. Several studies were conducted that investigated the effects of cattle manure on acceptance. In one trial, 3 choices were offered to yearling cattle:

  1. Water without contamination
  2. Water contaminated with 0.005% fresh manure
  3. Water contaminated with 0.025% fresh manure

The manure was added on a fresh weight basis. The data shows a strong avoidance of contaminated water, yet the water available to cattle drinking directly from dugouts is heavily contaminated by feces.

Assuming an animal produces 25 kg manure each day (fresh weight), defecates 10 times a day, and defecates 25% each time it drinks from the dugout or pond (on average of twice a day), each animal would then contaminate an equivalent volume of 6600 gallons per day with 0.005% fresh manure. This is further aggravated within the dugout environment by repeated contamination from a variable herd size, and more often in the shallow part of the dugout.

However, given no choice, cattle will drink contaminated water and intake may not be suppressed except at concentrations of fresh manure beyond 0.25% (Fig. 3).  A concentration of 1% appeared to be a threshold at which water will be completely rejected (unpublished data).

In other trials, the consumption of fresh water was compared to water that was contaminated with either soil taken from a dugout, to which cattle had direct access, or manure at rates of 0.05%, 0.15%, and 0.45%. The rates were 5 and 15% by weight. In both trials, feed consumption was constant but water intake was reduced from 38 litres of clean water to 32 litres/head contaminated with 15% muck. Water and feed consumption were not affected by contamination of low rates of manure.

Does water intake affect feed consumption?

A relationship exists between water intake and feed intake (Hyder et al. 1968). Butcher et al. (1959) reported a ratio of 3 litres water for each kg (dry matter) of feed consumed when the temperature was about 5 degrees C and 7 litres when the temperature was 32 degrees C. Utley et al. (1969) reported a reduction in feed intake from 6.2 to 4.8 kg d-1 when water was restricted to 60% of free choice; and the ratios of water to feed decreased from 2.9 to 2.2 L kg. In a penned study where cattle were offered either clean water or water contaminated with either 0.25, 0.50, or 0.75% fresh manure, feed intake was 16.2, 15.5, 15.19, and 14.16 kg (Fig. 3), respectively while the ratios of water to feed were 4.9, 4.41, 3.69, and 4.24 L kg, respectively. Contamination of water with muck of 5 and 15% reduced water and feed intake and reduced the ratios of water to feed consumption from 3.1, for fresh water, to 3.0 and 2.9 L kg, respectively.


Everyone knows that clean water is better the dirty water. The question is, "just how important is clean water?"

Here are several reasons why clean water pays off in the weaning weights, calving percentages and on the scale for grassers...

The traditional pasture watering system was pretty simple: get a cat or back hoe, dig a big hole out on the pasture, let it fill with water and presto! Youíre watering the cattle. Worked for generations, didnít it? The problem is that the world is getting more competitive and we need to get more out of cattle than dad and granddad did.

We keep expecting our cows to produce heavier weaning weights and spend a lot of time searching for the type of bulls to make that possible. Weíve got the genetic potential but there is one unbreakable rule when it comes to weight gains. The animals will only gain up to the first limiting factor.

Once you get past the genetics, the first limiting factor is generally nutrition. Water is part of the overall nutrition package. The amount of water an animal drinks is directly linked into how much that old momma cow will eat. The amount of water she drinks has a lot to do with the quality of the water. All of which brings us back to that old dugout.

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