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NDSU Extension finds water quality can impact livestock production

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Water is an important, but often overlooked nutrient. Livestock water requirements are affected by many factors. They can include livestock size, productivity, diet and environmental conditions. Good water quality can greatly impact cattle’s intake and weight gain. 

In a North Dakota State University (NDSU) article titled “Water Quality Can Impact Livestock Production,” NDSU Extension Livestock Environmental Stewardship Specialist Miranda Meehan and NDSU Extension Agricultural Engineer Tom Scherer found adequate water quality can make a significant impact on herd health and production. 

Water sources 

“Water quality can vary depending on the source,” says Scherer. “Groundwater tends to be of higher quality than surface water. However, some aquifers have naturally high levels of potentially toxic salts such as sulfate due to geology.”

“Weather can also influence water quality,” he adds. “When runoff is low in the spring or during a drought, the salts in surface water become more concentrated as water levels decline and can reach levels which can be toxic.”

All-natural water contains dissolved minerals, often called salts. The concentration of the total dissolved solids (TDS) is measured in parts per million (ppm). 

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

Ranchers should monitor TDS and sulfate levels throughout the grazing season because weather and other factors can influence water quality, Meehan notes in an article titled, “Livestock Water Quality Likely to be Impacted by Drought.” 

Producers can conduct water tests. If the TDS is greater than 5,000 ppm or if the sulfate concentration is greater than 1,000 ppm, the educators note producers may want to find an alternative water source or find some way to blend better-quality water with poor-quality water to reduce the concentration of TDS or sulfate. 

“We recommend the use of hand-held TDS meters as a quick method to screen water samples,” Meehan says. “If the screening indicates the TDS is greater than 4,500 ppm, submit a sample to a lab for additional analysis.”

Sulfate test strips are another tool to screen water samples. Both of these tools are affordable and easy to use, according to Meehan.

Illness risks

Providing high-quality water also can improve herd health. Livestock which primary water sources are ponds and dugouts have a greater risk of contracting illnesses such as giardia, leptospirosis and cyanobacterial poisoning, compared to livestock drinking from a trough.

Water with elevated nutrient levels are also at a higher risk for blue-green algae blooms in periods of hot, dry weather. Some species of blue-green algae, otherwise known as cyanobacteria, contain toxins which can be deadly when livestock and wildlife consume them.

The best method for monitoring cyanobacteria is visually. However, this can be difficult due to how rapidly a bloom can develop and ranchers’ ability to check water frequently. One potential solution is to use a camera to monitor water locations.

If a bloom is observed, livestock should be removed immediately and a water sample should be submitted for testing. The sample can be evaluated microscopically for potentially toxic species of cyanobacteria or the water can be analyzed for several of the toxins at commercial labs at a higher cost.

“Monitoring water quality throughout the grazing season is important because it changes in response to climate and environmental conditions,” Meehan says.

Water projects 

The specialists share installing a water development project can help ensure livestock have access to good-quality water throughout the grazing season. 

Other benefits, in addition to animal health and performance, can include an increase in flexibility in producers’ management systems, an increase in grazeable acreage and an extended grazing season, allowing producers to utilize crop residues and cover crops for forage and improving grazing distribution. 

Common projects include troughs, pumps, wells and pipelines. The specialists note through time, these improvements, combined with management practices, can increase a producer’s carrying capacity, allow for an increase in herd size and/or increase drought resistance with stockpiled forages. 

The article notes Canadian studies have shown the quality of water accessible to livestock is directly tied to the amount of forage they consume. Studies report improved gains by as much as 0.24 pounds per day in yearlings and 0.33 pounds per day in calves receiving high-quality water.

Brittany Gunn is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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