Extension Program in North Dakota Helps Producers Improve Drinking Water Quality for Livestock

Monitoring the quality of drinking water for livestock throughout the grazing season is important because it changes in response to climate and environmental conditions. To document this variability and to help livestock producers identify potential water quality concerns, Miranda Meehan and Tom Scherer at North Dakota State University have initiated an Extension program to monitor water quality on livestock operations. The goal of this project, which began last summer, is to improve the quality of water that livestock drink – whether the source is surface water or groundwater – and reduce deaths due to toxic water conditions.

Providing adequate water to livestock is critical for animal health and production. Good-quality water can increase the cattle’s intake and weight gain. Canadian studies have shown the quality of water accessible to livestock is directly tied to the amount of forage they consume. Studies report improved gains by as much as 0.24 pounds per day in yearlings and 0.33 pounds per day in calves receiving good-quality water.

Providing good-quality water also can improve herd health. Livestock whose primary water sources are ponds and dugouts have a greater risk of contracting illnesses such as giardia, leptospirosis, and cyanobacterial poisoning, compared with livestock drinking from a trough.

Water quality varies depending on the source. Groundwater tends to be of higher quality than surface water; however, some aquifers in North Dakota have naturally high levels of potentially toxic salts, such as sulfate, due to geology.

Weather can also influence water quality. When runoff is low in the spring or during a drought, the salts in surface water become more concentrated as water levels decline and can reach levels that are toxic.

All natural water contains salts, which are actually dissolved minerals or solids. The concentration of the total dissolved solids (TDS) is measured in parts per million (ppm). For most classes of grazing livestock, the TDS in the water should be less than 5,000 ppm.

Sulfate is part of the TDS. The recommended concentration of sulfate should be less than 500 ppm for calves and less than 1,000 ppm for adult cattle. High levels of sulfate can reduce copper availability in the diet. Elevated levels of sulfates may also cause loose stool, whereas very high levels of sulfate can induce central nervous system problems.

If a water test indicates that the TDS are greater than 5,000 ppm or the sulfate concentration is greater than 1,000 ppm, producers may have to find an alternative water source or find some way to blend a better quality water with the poorer quality water to reduce the concentration of TDS or sulfate.

Installing a water development project can help ensure that livestock have access to good-quality water throughout the grazing season. In addition to benefiting animal health and performance, water development projects can increase flexibility in producers’ management systems, increase grazeable acreage and extend the grazing season, allow producers to utilize crop residues and cover crops for forage, and improve grazing distribution.

Common water development projects include troughs, pumps, wells, and pipelines. Through time, these improvements, combined with appropriate management, have the potential to increase the carrying capacity of a producer’s operation, allowing for an increase in herd size and/or increased drought resistance with stockpiled forages.

In addition to the improvement in livestock production and health, water developments have also been linked to enhanced water quality for ecosystems and people. For example, currently, the leading impairments of surface water quality to North Dakota’s streams in rivers are fecal coliform and e. coli. The primary source of these bacteria is livestock manure and urine. Developing “off-stream” water sources reduces livestock use of surface water, improving water quality by reducing bacteria, nutrient levels, and sediment loads, due to decreased bank erosion.

For more information and guidance on livestock water quality issues, visit https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/livestockextension/water.

Miranda Meehan, Extension Livestock Environmental Stewardship Specialist, North Dakota State University

Miranda Meehan is the North Dakota State University Extension Livestock Environmental Stewardship Specialist. She earned B.S and M.S degrees in Animal and Range Science and a Ph.D. in Natural Resource Management, all from NDSU. The focus of her research and extension program is livestock and environmental interactions, specifically those related to grazing. Her current research focuses include integrated crop livestock systems and riparian ecology and reclamation.

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