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Producers should consider water quality as well as water availability

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Hosts‌ ‌of‌ ‌the‌‌ ‌Kansas‌ ‌State‌ ‌University‌ ‌Beef‌ ‌Cattle‌ ‌Institute‌ ‌(BCI)‌ ‌Cattle‌ ‌Chat‌ podcast ‌Brad‌ White,‌ ‌Dustin‌ ‌Pendell and Phillip‌ ‌Lancaster‌ ‌discussed‌ ‌several‌ ‌current‌ ‌events‌ ‌and‌ ‌topics‌ ‌related‌ ‌to‌ ‌livestock‌ ‌production in the latest episode,‌ ‌including‌ ‌water quality and access for young calves.‌ ‌ It’s no surprise that water is necessary for animal health and well-being in any production. While most might greatly consider the quantity of water available, the BCI team of experts offers other factors to consider when providing water sources for livestock.  

The importance of water quality 

“I was listening to a PhD student’s research proposal looking at the impacts of water quality and heat and cold stress on a carcass,” explains Dr. Pendell. “It’s more clear the impact that heat and cold stress have on carcass quality. But, when he said, ‘water quality,’ this kind of jumped out at me.” 

The Cattle Chat team says, “There has been a little bit of research from a nutritional standpoint. We don’t have a whole lot of knowledge on water other than to make sure it’s available in adequate quantities and test it for any contaminants.” 

Referring to a study looking at cow/calf pairs drinking well water compared to water from ponds and streams, the team shared weaning weights on calves drinking well water were 20 or 30 pounds heavier than calves drinking out of ponds and streams. 

“This is an impressive difference,” notes the team of experts. “We don’t think about it on both sides; both cows and the calves, but calves have to drink water, too.” 

Water and calf development  

Producers with calves born earlier in the spring may wonder how much water the calves need or when they need to have water access.  

The team of Extension experts says calves should have open access and ad libitum access to water.  

“We want to make sure they have access to clean fresh water, and calves that are still nursing the cow need the same access to water, even though they are consuming milk,” they add.   

The reason behind this lies in calves’ digestive system and development.  

“Because when that calf suckles, it causes a reflex reaction which allows milk to bypass the rumen and go to the true stomach in the small intestine,” explains the BCI team. “In the rumen, the high-quality milk protein would actually be downgraded to a lower quality microbial protein.”  

Calves can avoid this by allowing milk to bypass the rumen.  

“But, then the problem starts when the calf starts to eat solid food, some grass and things like that, and they don’t have any water or liquid going into the rumen,” says the team of experts. 

“The liquid is important because it helps the rumen contractions mix forage and feed better, and this mixing is what allows microbes in the rumen to come in contact with feed particles and attach to those feed particles to start the digestion process.” 

It is important to consider when calves will start digesting forages.  

“Depending on how much milk cows are producing, calves are going to start nibbling on grass and eating grass at around a month of age and this is only going to increase.” 

Additionally, producers should consider calves’ need for water by understanding a cow’s milk production. 

The team notes, lactation curves typically peak at about 60 days after calving. At this point,  “Milk production starts to decline, the calf starts to consume more and more grass and starts to rely more on the digestion of grass for its nutrient requirements.” 

Considerations for water facilities 

Water access continues to be a primary concern for producers.  

“Think about if we are watering out of man-made structures: We need to make sure calves are able to access water in the summertime,” explains the team of experts, noting that winter usually comes with water access issues.  

“Overall, we really do water a disservice as a nutrient,” says the team of experts. “We spend a lot of time talking about other nutrients and feed ingredients. From a veterinarian’s perspective, water might be the most important nutrient and we give it the least amount of consideration.” 

The Cattle Chat team mentions, “If producers tie it into some of our previous discussions where we have talked about rotating pastures or being sure to leave adequate forage, one of the big limiting factors is access to water.” 

“There has to be enough water at each of those areas. It’s easy to say, ‘well they can drink out of the pond, or they can drink out of that area for a little bit,’ but the water quality bleeds through into everything.” 

The BCI Cattle Chat team leaves listeners with five tips for maintaining good water on their operation in their checklist for the week: Maintain good footing around the water facilities, the facilities should be designed for young calves, monitor water for potential toxins, avoid contamination and provide adequate quantities of water.  

Chaney Peterson is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to  

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