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Summer stock water: Water source management is key for cattle grazing on summer pasture and/or

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Water source

management is key for cattle grazing on summer pasture and/or range

By July, cattle are usually turned out to summer pasture and/or range and producers’ attention turns elsewhere – irrigating hay meadows, fixing stretches of fence and conducting housekeeping chores around the ranch, among others. 

But, just because cattle are out of sight for a few months, does not mean they should be out of mind, especially when it comes to the most important, and often overlooked nutrient – water. 

In a June 21 Beef Cattle Institute (BCI) Cattle Chat podcast, Kansas State University (KSU) experts note water quality, quantity and availability is critical for cattle during hot summer days, and access to good, clean water can have a positive impact on producer profitability. 

Impact of fresh water

While the amount of water cows consume depends on environmental conditions and the type of feed they are on, the general rule of thumb is mature cows need one gallon of water for every 100 pounds of body weight.

According to BCI Clinical Assistant Professor Dr. Phillip Lancaster, this doubles to two gallons per 100 pounds during summer months.

“Cattle can drink about twice as much water in hot environments than in the cold winter months,” he states. 

Lancaster notes this rule also applies to calves, and though their diet mainly consists of milk, they also need water to help their rumen develop and function. 

“Water from milk bypasses the rumen, but they still need water in the rumen so they can properly digest any forage they are starting to consume and get their rumen microbial population established,” Lancaster says. “We do need to make sure they have access to water, even at a young age.” 

KSU Extension Veterinarian Dr. Bob Larson points out water quality is also important, as low-quality water can affect growth performance and lead to various health issues.

“Any time animals are not as hydrated as they should be, their weight gain suffers and they are more susceptible to a number of different diseases, including pneumonia,” he says. 

Larson notes calves with access to fresh, clean water can weigh up to 30 pounds more than their counterparts drinking out of a dirty stock tank.

“There is definitely some economic benefit to investing in a good, clean water source,” he states.

Assessing pond health 

While out on summer pasture and/or range, ponds and streams are generally where cattle get their water, so ensuring proper maintenance and care of these water sources is important.  

According to experts at TLC Products, assessing pond health is the first step in good management. 

To do this, the company advises producers to analyze water quality including pH, dissolved oxygen and nutrient levels. 

Additionally, KSU Assistant Professor of Wildlife and Outdoor Enterprise Management Joe Gerken says individuals should assess the edges and slope of their pond. 

“A healthy pond will have a slope of about three to one,” he says. “This means, for every three feet they go out, they should get about one foot deeper.” 

As ponds fill with sediment and water levels become shallower, more sunlight reaches the bottom, causing more plant growth collecting more sediment, turning into a vicious cycle. 

This cycle leads to decreased water quality and aforementioned issues in the herd.

Water source maintenance

To keep ponds healthy and avoid associated issues in cattle, it is crucial producers conduct regular maintenance on their stock water ponds. 

“When we think about pond management, we usually only think about the pond itself, but it might be something going on around the pond or upstream in the watershed,” says Gerken. 

He notes allowing vegetative growth or installing a sediment filter, such as a dry dam, upstream will help slow down water as it enters the pond and limit the amount of sediment it brings with it. 

However, Gerken reminds producers it is important to clean out sediment filters at least once a year because, if neglected, they can double the amount of sediment entering the pond. 

Experts at TLC Products also suggest implementing an aeration system and beneficial vegetation, while managing unwanted weeds and algae blooms. 

According to TLC Products’ website, a high-quality aeration system can promote beneficial bacteria growth and reduce the likelihood of algae blooms, which look and smell unpleasant and, in some cases, can even be lethal. 

Some pesky weeds and plants can overtake a stock pond and need to be removed, while others play a vital role in nutrient absorption and erosion prevention.

TLC Products notes producers should do research on what accounts for appropriate and inappropriate pond vegetation in their area and manage them based on their findings. 

A February 2017 publication written by Oklahoma State University (OSU) Extension further notes any burrowing animals such as beaver, muskrat and gophers needs to be managed, as they can stir up sediment and cause other up/downstream damage. 

Limited access watering points

Many experts agree the best management tool for keeping stock ponds healthy is to fence off the water source and allow limited access watering points. 

“Water quality and quantity is really important, but it is very hard to achieve in a pond where livestock are allowed direct access,” says Gerken. 

OSU also notes fencing eliminates damage to dams and shorelines by overgrazing and hoof traffic, leading to longer pond life and less turbidity. 

“With cattle no longer breaking down shoreline areas, the threat of invasion by cattails is reduced,” reads the OSU publication. “When livestock no longer loaf in and around the immediate pond area, the amount of manure and urine reaching the pond is greatly reduced.” 

“Eliminating cattle excrement reduces toxic algae and often improves the palatability of water, potentially resulting in greater livestock gain,” OSU continues.  

While limiting access to water is good practice, it is still important cattle have ample room to drink. 

Gerken recommends creating a few livestock water access points about 20 to 40 feet wide and long enough cattle can access water four to five feet deep.

The KSU experts also note, although there are costs associated with fencing off a water source, there are federal, state and county resources, such as cost-share programs, available to mitigate costs. They also recommend reaching out to a watershed specialist with further questions regarding pond health and management practices. 

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

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