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Winter water recommendations for cattle shared

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Cooler temperatures have started to add another task to producers’ daily checklists – breaking ice or checking heated water sources. Bob Larson, Kansas State University Beef Cattle Institute professor shares water is the most important nutrient and the one animals can go the shortest time without before getting into trouble.

                  “Typically, an animal is going to drink 50 to 100 percent more on a hot summer day than they will in the winter,” he explains. “Producers should be thinking about the size of the tank and how to keep water ice-free and free flowing to keep animals hydrated through the winter.” 

Winter water demand and cattle performance

                  A 600-pound calf might be drinking seven to eight gallons of water per day, while a dry cow will drink eight to 10 gallons of water, according to Larson. When it is cold, he recommends around one gallon per 100 pounds of body weight. 

                  However, water demand also depends on the stage of production an animal is in. A fall-calving cow lactating through winter months has the potential to drink almost twice as much as a dry cow.

                  “Frozen water sources and improperly functioning automatic waters are major contributors to limiting water intake,” says Robert Bourne, Bryan County Extension director and agricultural educator for Oklahoma State University (OSU) in an OSU publication. 

                  Keeping open water could also result in larger weaning weights, Bourne notes. 

                  “When water is suddenly limited by frozen water sources or improperly functioning waters, salt toxicity can occur because there is not sufficient water to dilute and eliminate salt in the animal’s tissues,” shares OSU Cooperative Extension Veterinarian and Food Animal Quality and Health Specialist Barry Whitworth. 

                  Salt toxicity results from an increase in the amounts of sodium in the blood, which then is absorbed into cerebral spinal fluid and eventually accumulates in the brain. 

                  Urinary calculi, or water belly, is another health issue brought on by limited water intake. 

                  “The most likely scenario in these instances is an animal not consuming as much water as is needed during wintertime weather, which concentrates the urine,” Whitworth explains. “Stones form, and over time they get larger, manifest in large numbers and lodge in the urethra.” 

                  “It is far less stressful on both the animal and owner to simply assure adequate and continuous water intake rather than having to treat a case of urinary calculi,” says Whitworth. 

Winter water maintenance 

                  “Don’t forget access to clean, fresh water is just as important as access to water itself,” Larson adds. “In the summertime, we think about tanks getting gunked up with moss and algae. In the winter, tanks still get dirty with all kinds of saliva and hay.” 

                  Larson shares producers should consider the cost of water infrastructure compared to the costs of labor. A heated water tank might be more cost effective than chopping ice throughout the winter. 

                  “It’s not just the quantity of the water, but the quality of water,” says Larson. “Many Extension offices will have water tests available to make sure the water cattle are drinking is healthy.” 

                  “Optimizing production rather than maximizing is the key,” Bourne shares. “As always, analyze the practices in the operation and the effect those practices have on livestock.” 

                  Averi Hales is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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