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Adequate water access critical for feedlot cattle in heat

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

The dog days of summer are here, and as one hot and humid summer day gives way to another, it is important producers keep heat stress management practices in mind, especially when it comes to feedlot cattle. 

Unlike pastured cattle which have the ability to seek shade, water and air movement to cool down, many feedlot cattle experience radiant heat from dirt and concrete surfaces in addition to high temperatures, which can lead to overall decreased performance, and in some cases, even death.

While the use of shade structures in feedlots has made a big difference in mitigating the effects of heat stress on fat cattle, University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Extension specialists point out there are a few other strategies to help keep feedlot cattle cool during summer months. 

Water intake and access

The first – and arguably most important – strategy is to ensure plenty of access and availability for adequate water intake. 

A UNL Extension NebGuide, published in August 2015, notes under normal conditions cattle easily consume one to two gallons of water per hour, and when the ambient temperature exceeds 80 degrees Fahrenheit, this requirement increases to at least 20 gallons per day for every 1,000 pounds of body weight.

“At temperatures above 80 degrees Fahrenheit, cattle need more water than normal to prevent dehydration and allow heat to be dissipated through evaporative cooling and urination,” explains UNL Extension. “Consuming water is the quickest and most efficient method to reduce body temperature.” 

With this said, UNL experts agree the issue for many producers isn’t related to supplying feedlot cattle with water, it is ensuring they have good access to it. 

According to the article, cattle need to have at least two to four inches per 1,000 pounds of body weight around the water tank and access to at least five gallons of water per hour. If an operation’s current watering system doesn’t allow for this, individuals should consider putting out extra water tanks or increasing water tank space. 

A July 1 UNL BeefWatch Newsletter article, written by Alfredo DiCostanzo and titled “How to Increase Water Access for Feedlot Cattle in Hot Weather” explains one way to increase water tank access is to build a trough slip-in where water tankers can deliver water into the feed bunk.

“Cap the ends of 20-foot culvert pipe sections – 12 to 18 inches in diameter to fit at the bottom of a feeding bunk – before cutting lengthwise to produce two identical size troughs. Burn the edges with a flame torch to smooth sharp edges resulting from the cut,” DiCostanzo suggests. “This results in a trough which can be slipped to the bottom of the feed bunk.”

“A single 20-foot section should add at least five watering spaces and 130 gallons to the watering tanks in the pen,” he adds. “Keeping these slips full of water should ease the pressure on watering tanks during hot and still days.” 

Feeding pattern

Another option for keeping feedlot cattle more comfortable during hot temperatures is to change feeding patterns and reevaluate feed additives. 

UNL educators recommend shifting the feeding schedule to later in the evening.

“Delivering 70 percent or more of the daily scheduled feed two to four hours after the peak ambient temperature of the day may decrease the roller coaster intake patterns often observed,” reads the article. “Moving to a late-day feeding schedule may also minimize subclinical acidosis, which is thought to contribute to problems seen in times of heat stress.” 

Additionally, the experts note research has indicated lowering energy content in the diet or using a storm ration may lower heat stress in feedlot cattle, although these strategies are somewhat controversial.

To create a lower-energy or storm ration, they recommend visiting with a qualified beef cattle nutritionist.   

Other considerations

In addition to ensuring access to water and shifting feeding schedules, UNL recommends using low-stress handling techniques to keep animals’ body temperatures low, removing windbreaks from and improving airflow in pens and providing shade, if it hasn’t already been done. 

“Windbreaks may be beneficial in the winter, but are a serious detriment in times of heat stress,” UNL explains. “Consider abandoning pens in which airflow has been impeded by windbreaks, trees, buildings and grains bins during critical heat stress, or at least avoid stocking these pens with black-haired cattle or cattle projected to finish in summer through early fall.”

The educators also recommend building tall mounds in feedlot pens to prevent cattle from bunching, which simultaneously enhances air flow and movement. 

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

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