Water Woes

cattle watering

By Harry Brook

With the high temperatures, no appreciable snow runoff this spring and little rain, you should be aware of changes to surface water quality and its effects on livestock. Cattle have been known to have died when their sole water source has very high levels of sulfates and cases of refusing to drink poor water are not unknown. There are no problems with sulfate levels below 500 ppm. However, some surface water sources can have much higher rates than that. This is a separate consideration from blue-green algae.

At levels about 500 ppm, animals may refuse to drink water with high sulfates. Levels can exceed 3,000 ppm, causing problems. If high enough, cattle will refuse to drink the water until desperate. That leads to reduced water intake or taking fewer, but deeper drinks, when they do. If they are extremely thirsty, they can fill up with 30 gallons of water. Don’t use the appearance of the water as an indicator of quality. Water tests can give you much better information.

Poor water leads to reduced intake and this can lead to reduced forage and feed consumption. In milking cows, that means less milk, poorer calf weaning weights, cow weight loss and potentially, lower cow fertility.

The problem with high sulfates is that they interfere with the animal’s uptake of copper. If a severe copper shortage results, you can get polio in the cattle. Symptoms of polio include blindness, lethargy, skinny cows, muscle tremors, staggering, weakness, head pressing and eventual convulsions and an inability to get up. In the Northeast part of Alberta, we have experienced some losses due to this in past dry years.

Your local vet can treat an animal with polio but you really should be keeping track of the water quality, especially when drought and short water supplies are the case. Things can be helped a bit by using high copper/zinc trace mineral salt blocks on pasture but it isn’t a solution to high sulfates.

High total dissolved solids can be a problem too, leading to poor animal performance, diarrhea and problems with lactating cows.

If your water sources are dugout, you might want to consider developing on-site, remote watering systems. There are a lot of different ways of restricting livestock access and improving water quality. It does limit the added phosphates livestock deposit when defecating in their water source.

Water is the single biggest nutrient an animal consumes. Water quality is important for livestock health and productivity. If you have the least doubt about water quality, consider getting a water sample then sending it off for analysis to any number of labs in Alberta.

Harry Brook is Flagstaff County’s Agricultural Fieldman. He can be reached via email at: or by phone at: 780-384-4138.