Providing Water on Pasture

Can Water Source Affect Cattle Performance?
No rancher would even consider putting cattle in a pasture where there was no water.  However, often little thought is given to water quality and its effects on the growth and productivity of cattle.  The question is – how much productivity is lost when cattle are forced to drink poor quality water?  In an experiment in the Kamloops area we examined this question.  Two groups of yearling heifers on summer pasture were given free access to a dugout (high sulphate) or to clean water that had been trucked in and offered in a trough.  A summary of the results are shown below. 

1998 1999
Dugout Clean Dugout Clean
Liveweight, lbs
Initial 613 611 606 608
Final 582 719 731 772
ADG, lbs/day -0.20 1.55 1.98 2.62
Water SO4' ppm
Start of trial 6,730 57 1,830 6.2
End of trial 17,600 68 3,810 5.3
The dramatic effect of water quality on heifer growth in a dry, hot year (1998) compared to a normal year (1999) is evident.  In this dry year, high sulfate levels were definitely a major factor affecting growth.  The negative impact of sodium sulphate on water consumption when offered free choice or restricted to twice a day was shown. Yearling heifers consumed approximately 25 L of high sulphate (3000 pm) water and 55 L of tap water when water was provided free choice.  If water was provided twice a day, water consumption dropped to 22L and 44 L for high sulphate and tap water, respectively.  From recent research done at Kamloops it is apparent that the metal source associated with the sulphate affects the acceptability of water by cattle.  Magnesium sulphate is less palatable than sodium sulphate; thus not only does a producer need to know the sulphate levels in his livestock water, but also need to be aware of the different minerals in the water.

The behavior of cattle during drinking can provide some clues to water quality.  When drinking good quality, low salt water cattle put their heads in the trough and drank with little or no interruptions, often consuming 10 to 20 litres in less than one minute.  When the water contained elevated levels of sulphates, the cattle were tentative in their behavior.  They appeared to smell and taste the water and drink in short bouts.  In addition to reduced consumption this resulted in a much slower rate of drinking compared to low sulphate containing water.

Impact of Cattle on Water and Riparian Zones
In seeking water, cattle naturally walk into streams/creeks or dugouts stirring up mud and adding manure.  There is pressure to fence cattle out of these water sources.  In many cases this is neither practical nor a cost-effective solution.  We have been studying the drinking choices cattle make to determine whether fencing is necessary.  An example of this research below.  We examined two sites, each for two years, at which cattle had free access to water both from a creek and pumped from the creek into a trough. 
Drinkking Source (% use)
Year Site Creek Trough
1999 A 19 81
2000 A 16 84
1999 B 29 71
2000 B 19 81
Average 21 79
There was no attempt to keep cattle out of the creek with fencing.  We observed cattle behavior from dawn to dusk for about 14 days and, as is evident from the table, cattle preferred to drink from a trough rather than the creek, even though it was the same water.  One interesting observation was the slightly lower than average trough use at Site B in 1999.  This was entirely due to one 11- year old cow that simply did not want to use the trough.  Over the two years, we observed that about 80% of the drinking took place from the trough.  Often cattle would walk further to drink from a trough rather than drink from the creek.

In another trial with 173 cow-calf pairs on a winter feeding ground, cows were given the choice of drinking from a river or a trough.  We observed that 91.6% of drinking took place from the trough.  Similarly, use of a trough without fencing can reduce fouling of dugouts and improve cattle gains.

We have recently started to use collars with GPS units to track cattle movement in riparian areas and their use of troughs.  From the first year’s data it is evident that every field has a unique physical layout that requires careful thought as to where off-stream troughs are placed.  In a pasture bisected by a creek, one trough located on a trail had extensive use while another trough on the opposite side of the creek was little used.  We also observed that constructing a bridge to encourage cows not to walk through the creek was initially only partially successful (30% use); after a period of adaptation, use was substantially increased (85% use).

The overall conclusion of our research is that offering water in a trough can substantially reduce the use of creeks/streams and, from the perspective of quality of drinking water and fish habitat, perhaps fencing is not always necessary.  Experiments continue to examine ways to manage cattle behavior around riparian areas.


Nutrition Update
Volume 16 No.1, May 2005
Source: Douglas Veira. 2003. Livestock Water: Impacts on Production and Behavior. Western Range Seminar 2003.