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Drinking Water for Feedlot Cattle

May 12, 2020
by Scott Deering, Technical Services
Even though water is considered one of the most important nutrients in cattle diets it can often be overlooked.  Water must be adequate in both quality and quantity to support optimum cattle performance.  Water requirements can be greatly affected by composition of the feed, feed intake, rate of gain, cattle activity, type of cattle, weight of cattle and environmental conditions.  To meet these demands, it’s essential to have an adequate supply of quality water.
Typical sources of drinking water for most feedlots are rural water, surface (pond) water and well water.  Contaminants can be found in any of these sources, which may create toxicity concerns.  These contaminants may also affect water odor, taste and thus cattle acceptance.  Additionally, some contaminants can interfere with mineral absorption and thus lead to nutritional deficiencies.  Rural water is usually at lower risk for contamination but some contaminants may still be present at low levels.  Surface water supplies and shallow dug wells without good surface drainage away from the well are a higher risk for contamination.  Deep dug wells have less potential for contamination.
  • Nitrates can be toxic to cattle.  Nitrates are soluble and move with runoff water.  Therefore, runoff from heavily fertilized or manured fields may impact total water nitrate levels.  If you have elevated levels of nitrates in your water supply be careful of the level of nitrates coming in through the feed.  Pay particular attention to nitrate levels in forages harvested during a drought.  It’s important to manage the total amount of nitrates in the diet, both from water and feed sources.
  • Sulfates in water can have big impacts on cattle health and productivity.  High sulfate intake can reduce ADG, feed efficiency and may lead to polioencephalomalacia (PEM).  It’s important to account for both feed and water sulfate content when managing sulfate intakes.  Sulfate from feed can be a major contributor to total sulfate intake.
Water management tips that make a difference:
  • Make sure your water system provides adequate volume to meet cattle needs, especially during peak demand.
  • Make sure waterers are located to allow cattle to comfortably access and drink from.
  • Clean waterers at least weekly.
  • Check for stray voltage in waterers.  Stray voltage in a self-heating waterer can reduce water consumption and thus reduce feed intake.
  • Allow for at least 1 inch of linear watering space per head.  More is needed during hot weather. Putting a water tank in the pen may be needed during periods of heat stress.  Cattle consume more water during extreme heat and high humidity, requiring greater access.
  • Newly arrived calves may refuse water at first due to differences in palatability, so carefully monitor water intake on incoming calves to make sure there are no signs of dehydration. Allowing waterers to run over may help new cattle acclimate to drinking from new watering devices.  Waterers should be at an appropriate height and located in the fence line.
Remember water intakes are not static throughout the year, and increased water intake in summer will result in greater intake of any contaminants that are present.  An important consideration is to have your water tested to account for any contaminants that may be present.  If you have any questions, please contact your local QLF District Representative.
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