Fresh Starts -
Give Pastured Heifers High-Quality Water

Help your pastured heifers grow by giving them high-quality water

If they aren’t drinking, your heifers aren’t eating. And if they aren’t eating, they aren’t growing.

Clean drinking water is key for all pastured cattle. For heifers, it’s a vital link in the chain of successful growth.

Water quality affects consumption. If your heifers’ water intake is low, they’ll eat less dry matter. Low consumption reduces growth. To maximize their water and feed intake, you need to provide them with clean, palatable water.

Pastured livestock are often watered from surface sources. Water quality deteriorates if you let cattle walk into the water or let surface runoff containing fecal material contaminate it.

With proper management, you can maintain surface water quality on your farm and improve your pastured heifers’ growth rates.

Research conducted by the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration at the Western Beef Development Centre in Termuende, Sask., shows dramatic differences in cattle growth performance in relation to the quality of their drinking water.

Gains were up to 30 per cent higher for animals drinking fresh water versus water straight from a dugout or pond. Although cattle have a high tolerance for variable water quality, they perform better when provided with clean water.

When livestock drink directly from a pond, they also tend to walk into the pond and defecate in the water, contaminating their drinking water source.

Dr. Ann Clarke of the University of Guelph conducted a study on the habits and activities of pastured cattle along streams for the Ontario Cattlemen’s Association. Her research found the cattle didn’t spend much time in the water. Instead, they used it as a drinking source and moved out of the stream after drinking.

However, whenever cattle walk in water, they disturb sediment at the bottom of the stream or pond. Stirring up sediment does as much to lower the water quality as the urine and feces cows can deposit in the water.

You can take steps to minimize animal access into your stream or pond and help prevent deterioration of your water quality. Move salt and mineral feeders well back from the water supply and provide some shade away from the water’s edge. This will encourage the cattle to move away from the water once they drink.

Providing an alternate water source for the livestock will do the most to maintain the water quality. The Saskatchewan study found cattle that drank water pumped from a dugout to a trough gained, on average, 15 to 20 per cent more than cattle that had to go into the water to drink.

Fence a dugout and pump water with an electric, solar or wind-powered pump into a trough to provide the best quality water available to the livestock. You can also use nose pumps to make clean water available. With these, the animal provides the energy to pump the water from the water supply to the drinking trough that is part of the nose pump.

If cattle must drink directly from a stream, give them a solid access point that will minimize the amount of soil erosion at the water’s edge.

Use coarse stone to provide an erosion-resistant surface for the approach to the water. You may have to use geo textile and or geo web material to create a firm construction.

Geo web is a plastic, honeycomb-shaped material and geo textile is a construction-type cloth similar to landscape fabric. Both of these materials are inert and will not break down in the soil.

If water quality is high, cattle will drink more. More water consumed means more feed eaten and consequently higher gains. By ensuring your pastured heifers have access to fresh, clean water, along with an adequate feed supply, you’ll allow them to maximize their growth.

This article first appeared in the August 2000 Ruminations column of the Ontario Milk Producer magazine.

For more information:
Toll Free: 1-877-424-1300
Author: Jack Kyle - Grazier Specialist/OMAFRA
Creation Date: August 2000
Last Reviewed: 01 November 2011