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Producers need to keep an eye on water quality in drought conditions

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

With drought conditions plaguing most of the U.S., water has been of particular concern for producers this past year. In addition to worrying about water quantity during drought years, North Dakota State University (NDSU) Extension’s Miranda Meehan and Craig Askim say producers also need to worry about water quality.

            In a recent NDSU Extension column, NDSU Extension Agent Askim notes he and Meehan, NDSU Extension Livestock Environmental Stewardship Specialist, spent the year 2020 testing water wells and dugouts in Mercer County, N.D. to understand the impacts of drought conditions on water quality.

Impacts of low-quality water

            According to Askim and Meehan, having reliable access to high-quality water is one of the most limiting factors for cattle in a multitude of grazing systems.

            “During a drought, this becomes an even greater challenge for producers as water sources deplete and decrease, creating water shortages and the potential for toxicity,” explains Meehan.

            “When surface waters become low, the mineral component of water becomes more concentrated because minerals don’t evaporate with water,” adds Askim. “Of particular concern are increased concentrations of total dissolved solids (TDS) and sulfates, which can be toxic to livestock.” 

            For most classes of grazing livestock, Askim says TDS in water should be less than 5,000 parts per million (ppm).

            “Sulfate is part of TDS. The recommended concentration of this should be less than 500 ppm for calves and less than 1,000 ppm for adult cattle,” notes Askim. “High levels of sulfate can reduce copper availability in the diet. Elevated levels of sulfates may cause loose stools, whereas very high levels of sulfate can induce central nervous system problems.”

            In addition to potential toxicity, the specialists further explain water quality may impact cattle intake and weight gain. 

In fact, studies report improved gains by as much as 0.24 pounds per day in yearlings and 0.33 pounds per day in calves with access to good-quality drinking water, according to Askim and Meehan.

Monitoring TDS and sulfate levels

            Because TDS and sulfate levels found in poor-quality drinking water may cause several different issues in livestock, Askim and Meehan emphasize the importance of monitoring water quality throughout the grazing season, especially during drought years. 

            The two specialists recommend using two affordable and easy-to-use tools to screen water samples.

The first is a hand-held TDS meter. Askim and Meehan note if meters indicate a TDS greater than 4,500 ppm, producers should send the sample to a lab for further analysis.

            Sulfate test strips are the second tool Askim and Meehan recommend.

Monitoring cyanobacteria

            While monitoring TDS and sulfate levels, Askim and Meehan also encourage producers to monitor water resources for cyanobacterial blooms.

            “Drought increases the risk for cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) blooms, which can produce toxins harmful to livestock, wildlife, pets and people,” says Askim. “Toxicity is ultimately dependent on the species consuming the water, the concentration of the toxin and the amount of water ingested.” 

            The specialists note the best method for monitoring cyanobacteria is through visual observation.

            “This can be difficult due to how rapidly a bloom can develop and ranchers’ ability to check water frequently,” says Askim, noting a potential solution for this problem may be to use cameras to monitor water locations.

            “If a bloom is observed, livestock should be removed immediately and a water sample should be submitted for testing,” he continues. 

            Meehan concludes, “While developing a drought plan, it is critical producers include strategies to ensure livestock have adequate, good-quality water.”

            Hannah Bugas is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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