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Protect Water Quality

Poor-quality drinking water can wreak havoc on the health and performance of livestock. Because water plays such a vital role in every bodily function, decreased quality or limited intake of water can lead to loss of weight or a poor rate of gain, reproductive inefficiency, reduced milk production, illness, and even death.

Sulfate, manure, and blue-green algae are three elements that can potentially cause problems with water quality.

1. Sulfate

High-sulfate water can lead to a broad gamut of physical signs, says Cody Wright, South Dakota State University ruminant nutritionist. “It can lead to loss of performance and body condition and create a copper deficiency. We’ve had producers who couldn’t get cows and heifers bred. They struggled to find a cause and later discovered it was lost body condition due to high-sulfate water,” he says.

The presence of excess sulfate in water is spotty and hard to predict. High levels can occur in wells, dugouts, and runoff. Weather events like heat and wind, which lead to evaporation of surface water, can increase the level. A heavy rain may either dilute the sulfate levels or bring more sulfate into the dam.

“If you suspect you might have too much sulfate in the water, it’s important to take a water sample a couple of times during the grazing season,” says Wright. This is especially important when putting cattle on new pastures where you have no prior experience with the water source.

“Rural water is typically safe,” he continues. “When digging a new well, for instance, check with area producers to find out their experience with sulfate at various depths.”

2. Manure

If manure becomes concentrated in drinking water, cattle tend to drink less.

“When water consumption is limited, feed consumption is affected,” he says. “When cattle drink less, they eat less.”

During cool weather, a lactating beef cow needs about 1 gallon of water per 100 pounds of body weight and 2 gallons per 100 pounds during the hottest days.

If cattle are drinking from ponds or dugouts, manure-loading of the water may be reduced by finding ways to restrict loitering of the cattle at the water source.

3. Blue-green algae

On hot, dry, calm days in summer, stagnant water can have a blue-green algae bloom, or scum, says Wright.
“When the algae cells die, they release toxins into the water that can kill cattle. Water sources that have a high nutrient load are at the greatest risk for blue-green algae,” he says.

Where possible, fencing cattle away from the contaminated area of water can be helpful. “In a stock dam, you can try pumping uncontaminated water from deeper levels into a stock tank,” he says.

Treating the contaminated area of water with copper sulfate, or bluestone, can also help. Bluestone is typically available at feed stores. Wright suggests treating the affected water at a rate of 2.7 pounds of copper sulfate per acre-foot of water. An acre-foot measures 66×660 feet and 1 foot in depth. 

“You can just fling it out in the water,” says Wright. “Some apply it in a more uniform fashion, but it’s not necessary.” 

After treating the algae bloom, keep cattle off the water source for approximately one week.

When good sources of water coexist with contaminated sources in the same pasture, you might trust the cattle to seek out the water they need.

“Cattle are smart enough to find good water if it’s available,” says Wright. “If cattle are grazing well and performing well, you likely don’t have a problem with water quality.” 

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