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Importance of water: Monitoring water quality is critical in cattle production

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

“Water is the most undervalued and forgotten about nutrient when it comes to livestock,” said Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture Livestock Specialist Leah Clark. 

Clark was featured in a Canadian Beef Cattle Research Council webinar titled “What’s in your water? Water quality and the economics of pump systems.”

Importance of water

“Water is the most important essential nutrient for the biological function of animals,” Clark said. “Water intake and quality will affect feed intake, absorption of other nutrients, general health, weight gain, milk production and productivity.”

Clark noted limiting the availability of water to cattle will depress production rapidly and severely because there is a direct relation between feed and water intake. 

“Poor quality drinking water is often a limiting factor of feed intake and ultimately weight gains,” according to Clark. “There are a lot of factors that can affect the safety and palpability of water.” 

Clark lists some of the factors affecting production as hardness, alkalinity, total dissolved solids (TDS), conductivity, nitrates, sulfates, iron, algae and sodium, among others.  

“If we just look at the sheer volume of water in cattle, mature cows are 75 percent water, and calves are 80 percent water,” said Clark. “The range of water needs is determined by lactation and heat.”

Total dissolved solids 

TDS is a sum inorganic salts dissolved in the water, according to Clark. 

“The most abundant of these solids are sodium, calcium, chloride, magnesium, sulfates, nitrates and iron,” said Clark. “There are others but these are the most often seen in livestock scenarios.” 

“The tolerance level for livestock depends on the species,” she said. “Beef cattle have a max tolerance up to 5,000 milligrams per liter.” 

She noted cattle exposed to too much TDS will experience diarrhea and overall decreased gains.  

Total dissolved solids can be tested for using lab analysis or hand-held meters, according to Clark. The handheld meters don’t actually measure TDS. They measure conductivity and use a conversion method. 

“It’s important to understand these handheld meters can be a good screening tool if accurate,” she continued. “Lab tests are still the gold standard when it comes to accuracy.” 

“When test methods were compared, it was found the handheld meter readings did not show as much TDS as the lab test of the same water,” Clark explained. “We also found the previously held belief of a 64 percent conversion of conductivity was wrong and 97 percent was more accurate.”


Clark explained intake of sulfates in excess can also wreak havoc on the health of beef cattle. 

“Excessive sulfate intake may cause direct toxicity,” she said. “But the detrimental effects are associated with metabolic interference.” 

She noted sulfur will also interact with trace minerals in the animal. These interactions can lead to a deficiency in certain necessary trace minerals. 

“Excessive sulfur impairs thiamine synthesis,” Clark explained. “This particular impairment can lead to polio in cattle.”

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recommend beef cattle have a suitable ration of 0.15 percent sulfate in their total diet. Max levels shouldn’t exceed 0.5 percent, according to Clark. 

“What we have to remember about these recommendations is they are encompassing the entire diet, not just water intake,” Clark noted. “As we start thinking about these things we need to look at both the diet and water of the cattle.”

“Causes of excessive sulfate include diet, rumen environment and mineral status among others,” said Clark 

The implications of high sulfate levels include reduced fertility and weight gain as well as immunity and skin issues, as per Clark. 

“With fertility, cows and heifers can have delayed cycling or skipped cycles,” she said. “Bulls will experience decreased production of sperm.”

She noted weight gain can be affected due to changes in metabolism and decreased feed and water intake. 

Algae and Bacteria 

“In the summer months, we also need to be monitoring bacteria and algae in our cattle’s water supply,” Clark stressed. 

She explained algae can function as an indicator of water quality. It thrives in nutrient-rich, stagnant water. 

“Smelly bacteria can persist in the winter months where there are anaerobic bacteria and nutrients present,” said Clark.

Clark explained cyanobacteria can produce neuro or liver toxins that can be fatal in cattle. She noted cyanobacteria are bacteria and not true algae, contrary to what the appearance suggests. 

“Cyanobacteria is planktonic free floating in the water column,” Clark said. “It has a green to dark brown appearance and looks similar to grass clippings or pea soup.” 

“Neurotoxins are fast acting and cause paralysis of the skeletal and repertory system,” Clark explained. “This type of toxin will kill cattle very quickly and symptoms include scours, mental derangement, muscle tremors and stiffness.” 

“Hepatotoxins can also be fatal but take longer to kill cattle in comparison to neurotoxins,” Clark noted. “These toxins affect the liver.”

Decreasing algae and bacteria

Clark explained issues with algae and other toxins can be magnified in the summer. Due to the heat, cattle demand more water and therefore will consume more. Because of the dry weather, there is no way to recharge sources so poor water only gets worse.

“Identification is key,” Clark said. “Some bacteria and algae look very similar but are treated quite differently.” 

She noted some algae are beneficial so identifying whether or not the algae is harmful or not is very important. 

“There are commercial products available to treat algae and bacteria,” Clark noted. “But proper management can help minimize these issues.” 

“We have the ability to deal with some problems in water quality,” she said. “But doing so requires a commitment of time and resources from producers.”

Callie Hanson is the assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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