Water Quality Can Affect Livestock Weight Gain

By Roxanne Johnson, Agriculture Communication, North Dakota State University. Studies indicate water quality is tied to forage consumption in livestock, which has an impact on weight gain.
calendar icon 16 July 2007
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The quality of the water livestock drink can have a major impact on the animals' water intake and weight gain, according to a North Dakota State University water quality expert.

"Canadian studies have shown the quality of water accessible to livestock is directly tied to the amount of forage they consume," says Roxanne Johnson, Extension Service water quality associate. "Improved water palatability increases water and feed consumption, which is demonstrated as an increased rate of gain."

These studies also show that while cattle will drink contaminated water, it has been associated with decreased forage intake.

Dugouts are the main source of water for cattle in some pastures, but water quality may be a problem. Because rate of gain in livestock is a priority for producers, looking at some options to improve water quality makes sense, Johnson says. One Canadian study could offer producers some insights.

Research conducted at the University of Saskatchewan's Termuende Research Farm by the Western Beef Development Center, Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Research Branch tested four water treatments in three separate trials during a four-year period. Each treatment allowed cattle to have full access to a water source.

The water sources were direct access to the dugout, water pumped from the dugout to a trough, water aerated and pumped to a trough, and water coagulated/chlorinated prior to pumping to a trough. When researchers pumped water to a trough, they fenced the dugout to prevent cattle from accessing it.

This study showed that compared with untreated water consumed directly from a dugout, water treated by either coagulation/chlorination or aeration improved cattle weight gain by 0.33 pound per day. Cattle in the study also spent considerably more time grazing and less time loafing when they had access to fresh water, compared with drinking from the dugout.

"If the key is increasing water consumption, then producers should consider palatability of accessible water, too," Johnson says.

While this aspect of water quality has not been studied fully, certain compounds found in water have characteristics that are offensive to humans and may contribute to decreased water intake in livestock. Examples include geosmin, which imparts an earthy odor; 2-methylisoborneol, which is associated with a musty taste; hydrogen sulfide, which is associated with a rotten-egg odor; chlorine, which has an offensive smell; and the metals iron and manganese, which give water a metallic taste and change the color of the water.

"I urge producers to evaluate their watering methods and see if changes could be made to improve the quality of water provided their livestock," Johnson says. "Not only will the lifespan of the dugout be extended through exclusion of livestock, cattle performance will improve through improved water quality."

June 2007

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