The hot, dry days of summer may be when proper hydration seems to be most essential to livestock, but the truth is that winter watering is just as critical. Those cold, blustery days when you most want to stay inside by the fire are the days it pays to watch your water.
Just like essential minerals, water adds zero energy to the diet, yet it is critical for survival and exploiting the nutritional value of feed. And no matter how much snow is on the ground, it is not an adequate water source for livestock.
Among cattle, the water-drinking champs are wet milk cows. A high-producing cow might suck down 25 gallons of water a day. It’s common to see cows drink three times the weight of feed in the form of water. The requisite volume of water needed is often an afterthought, particularly in the winter. True, water requirement is reduced in the winter, but it remains substantial.
Adequate water intake is necessary for:
• Transporting nutrients and excretions.
• Chemical reactions and its solvent properties.
• Regulating body temperature.
• Maintaining shape of body cells.
• Lubricating and cushioning joints and organs.
Lack of water has serious consequences, including reduced feed intake, lower productivity, weight loss due to dehydration and increased excretion of nitrogen and electrolytes such as sodium and potassium. Serious dehydration can even lead to death.
Ensure adequate water availability at all times to maintain hydration and normal metabolic activity. Some things can reduce water intake, even when availability is adequate. Check and monitor water intake regularly. In fact, evaluate water consumption as closely as you calculate dry matter consumption—it is that important. If water intake is less than expected and availability is good, then determine if there is anything that may be decreasing the water’s palatability. Cattle have a keener sense of smell than humans. Physiochemical factors that have been shown to influence water intake include total dissolved solids; sulfur, sulfate, sulfite and sulfide; chloride; iron; nitrate; manganese and fluoride. Water may also harbor pathogenic bacteria such as salmonella.
In addition, poor water quality can cause problems with facilities and equipment. For example, dissolved solids can cause water flow and waterer challenges. High iron might permit iron bacteria to grow, plugging water lines and systems.
Follow good management practices by flushing and cleaning waterers routinely. Feed, fecal bacteria and water-borne contaminants should be regularly cleaned out. Water quality in wells may be inconsistent. Mineral levels and total dissolved solids may fluctuate during the year.
If you suspect water quality is an issue, start with a livestock water analysis. You may need to treat the water with a shock treatment, filters, reverse osmosis or other means. More drastically, you may need a new well or switch to using municipal or rural utility water.
All water from natural sources contains impurities. Some of these impurities adversely affect the usefulness and suitability of water, while others may improve its palatability. Pure water is tasteless, colorless and odorless. It also feels slick on the skin. Because pure water is one of the best solvents available, it picks up impurities easily. Water may be cleansed or polluted as it flows over or filters through soil or other material. It may pick up or lose bacteria and dissolve or lose chemicals, minerals and sediment. The belief that flowing or soil-filtered water has purified itself is false and leads to an unjustified feeling about water safety. Clear water is not necessarily safe, just as colored or turbid water is not necessarily unsafe.
Water that is safe to drink is not necessarily nice to drink. To ensure livestock stay properly hydrated year round, make sure their water source is both safe and palatable.
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