Greg Lardy: Water Quality is Critical |

Greg Lardy: Water Quality is Critical

Given the value of cattle today relative to feed and transportation costs, some short-term management solutions (e.g. supplemental feeding, renting pasture in other parts of the country, drylotting cows, early weaning, creep feeding) may be viable in some years but not others. Staff photo

Drought can be a painful reminder of just how vital water is. It is the most important nutrient for our livestock and for humans! It is also critical for plant growth and forage production. The drought in 2017 is already affecting the quantity and quality of water available for grazing livestock and wildlife.

In this region, many people rely on stock ponds, dams, dugouts, and sloughs as a source of water for livestock. However, the lack of rainfall has resulted in lack of water availability or poor quality water in many of these sources. Some people are considering hauling water to their cattle, but you will quickly discover how much water a lactating beef cow and her calf can drink in a day when you are forced to haul water to them.

Water Quality

The most common water quality measurement is total dissolved solids (TDS). Total dissolved solids measures the amount of material dissolved in the water, and is generally expressed in parts per million (ppm). The higher the level of TDS, the greater the quantity of salts dissolved in the water. Total dissolved solids measures the anions and cations present in the water. Dissolved salts may include carbonate, bicarbonates, sulfates, nitrates, chlorides, phosphates, and fluorides.

Total dissolved solids should not be used as the only indicator of water quality for livestock. Measurement of other compounds present in the water is also important in determining if the water is suitable for consumption by livestock.

Sulfate levels are of particular concern since excess sulfate has been linked to cases of polioencephalomalacia (PEM). In addition, excess sulfate can react with dietary copper making the copper unavailable to the animal. This can result in copper deficiency symptoms, such as reduced immunity and impaired reproduction.

Other potential water quality problems include nitrates, cyanobacteria (blue green algae) poisoning, and contamination from other chemicals. Of these, cyanobacteria poisoning is probably the most commonly reported problem in this area, and cyanobacteria blooms can happen rapidly. In some cases, the only warning sign you see is dead mice, muskrats, birds, snakes, or fish near the water source. The North Dakota Department of Health has issued warnings and advisories for cyanobacteria poisoning in several bodies of water already this summer.

As drought conditions continue, it is important to remember that water evaporating from ponds, dugouts, dams, and sloughs results in water impurities being concentrated in the remaining water. Water that may have tested as suitable for livestock early in the grazing season can easily become problematic with high air temperatures and evaporation, especially with the lack of rainfall necessary to recharge these water sources.

Laboratory Analysis

Many different laboratories in the region can perform a complete water quality analysis. If in doubt about water quality for livestock use, be sure to have it tested. Routine water testing would include TDS, hardness, and pH. In this region, it is also a good idea to have the lab perform a sulfate analysis. The costs for routine analyses typically range from $30 to $75 per sample. Most labs have specific instructions for submission of water samples, so it is best to check with each individual laboratory for detailed instructions and a current price schedule.


Water is a critical nutrient for livestock. Water quality and quantity can affect livestock performance and animal health. As you review your grazing plans this summer, do not overlook the value of good quality water and the impact it can have on your bottom line. F