When stock water appears abundant and water quality has been consistent in previous years, it’s easy to focus on other things — but don’t overlook water testing.
Poor-quality stock water can lead to reproductive inefficiency, poor gains, disease and in extreme circumstances, death. Even when water supplies appear abundant, stock water may contain high levels of sodium, sulphates or other compounds that lead to toxicity.
Water quality can be especially variable in surface water sources — such as dugouts, ponds or dams — and weather doesn’t necessarily need to be hot and dry to warrant regular testing. Precipitation levels in the previous years, groundwater recharge, runoff conditions, evaporation levels and adjacent land use can all impact water quality in both the short- and long term.
It’s also important to monitor well water conditions. Quality in well water can change quickly, even if wells have had suitable water in the past.
Take the test
In a Bov-Innovation video presentation featured during the 2020 Canadian Beef Industry Conference, producer Carla Hicks of DC Land and Cattle near Mortlach, Sask., shared her perspective on why water testing is essential on their farm.
“It’s something we’ve always kind of paid attention to,” said Hicks, who adds her family lives in an area where they’ve experienced water quality issues and now they regularly test dugouts.
Hicks said they typically test water about once a month in the summer time, and a couple of times throughout the winter on their winter water sources as well.
They will move cattle to a different pasture to alternate water, or even haul water if quality deteriorates.
“We’re kind of limited into the water sources we have available so it’s kind of really just making sure we don’t have a surprise issue and that we can always come up with something if we have a water problem,” she said.
Hicks described a time when their cattle herd experienced problems drinking out of a dugout with elevated sulphate levels.
“We ended up with cows coming down with polio and we also had some issues with nursing calves so that was really a light bulb moment for us,” she said. “The year that we had the really bad water, we were aware of what was happening because of the water testing we were doing. So we were able to implement extra supplementation.”
While breeding was delayed that year, their cows were still bred because they were able to intervene in time and prevent a total disaster, said Hicks.
In the same video, Catherine Lang of the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture, explained how to collect and perform a water sample.
Using a clean, one-litre container, collect a sample that is representative of what the cattle are actually drinking. This may mean reaching in two to three feet or even using a retractable stick to safely get a sample.
Water samples are typically assessed for electrical conductivity which helps measure total dissolved solids (TDS) which provides an indication of sodium and sulphates.
Stock Water and Stockmanship
Every cattle farm is different. Some herds drink out of troughs their entire lives while other cattle are reared on the range, learning to walk a mile or more to water once a day out of a dugout or dam.
When moving cattle to a new field, it is important to ‘settle’ them on the best water source in the field. Don’t assume cattle will find stock water on their own, especially in large fields with multiple water sources that may include smaller potholes that can dry up as the weeks go by.
Thirsty cattle can become confused and refuse to leave the only water source that is familiar to them, even if it has dried up and there is better water elsewhere in the field. Cattle can become stuck or bogged in the mud, and also get muddy udders, causing nursing problems.
Stock Water Tips
- Implement a water system, such as a solar- or wind-powered pump, to help extend the length of a dwindling stock water source as well as improve water quality and increase animal gains.
- Work with your local agricultural extension office to obtain accurate test results, as well as learn about potential water development or testing rebates.
- Test water prior to moving cattle to a new pasture. Even if there is an abundance of water present, don’t assume the water is good quality.
- If cow-calf pairs are expected to drink water out of troughs, ensure that calves are able to reach the trough as well.
- If cattle are watering solely on a water system or pipeline with no access to a backup water source in case of failure, ensure those cattle are monitored daily especially during the summer heat.
- Blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) can also cause toxicity. Monitor for an ‘oily’ sheen, or something resembling spilled paint on the dugout surface, or ‘grass clippings’ in the water. Both are signs of cyanobacteria which can cause toxicity.