Cow Tales: Water quality |

Cow Tales: Water quality

Kenny Barrett Jr., DVM, MS

Last weekend I took my four-year-old daughter to the clinic with me for chores. It’s a drive I make four or more times a day. Some parts grasp my attention, others not so much. But traveling with a child is anything but dull.

As I drove down the road and turned the corner, my daughter yelled out “Hey, there’s the park I like to go to!” Ordinarily I pass by the park as though it doesn’t exist. My mind is generally tuned to public radio, the only source of news I seem to catch on a regular basis. But not today. Preschoolers don’t really seem to enjoy Science Friday; Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me; Talk of the Nation, or any other public radio broadcasts. Today I was answering questions about this or that, stuff important to a child. Her observations struck me – What else was I failing to observe? What aspects of my day had become too routine and needed a mental shot of caffeine?

Producers tend to focus on quantity of water and understandably so. Past periods of drought have encouraged many ranches to drill wells. Others still rely on dug-outs, livestock dams, windmills and natural running water. In general, water sources can be divided into deep wells and various sources of surface water.

Dams, dug-outs, streams and shallow wells are lumped into surface water. Surface water is subject to seasonal variation while deep wells are more consistent. It is important to note the water from a deep well may be consistently poor.

A water analysis will include details on hardness, sodium, alkalinity and much more. For beef producers, the two most important issues with water quality are sulfates and nitrates. Sulfates are a source of sulfur which is also found in feed. Therefore we have to consider both water and feed sources of sulfur/sulfates.

Water sulfate levels below 1,000 parts per million (ppm) are considered safe. Levels between 1,000-2,000 ppm will have some effect on copper metabolism, growth and immune function. Sulfur influences the copper status in the body by forming insoluble complexes with copper and molybdenum. At these levels, ranchers may observe more cases of footrot, pinkeye, and/or summer pneumonia. Reproductive rates may begin to decline. Sporadic cases of neurologic disease can become evident from 2,000-3,000 ppm. High levels of sulfur inhibit thiamin metabolism and lead to neurologic disease. Affected animals show signs of incoordination, recumbency, and/or death. Levels above 3,000 ppm sulfate should be avoided.

Nitrates in water can poison livestock. When cattle consume nitrates, the bacteria in their digestive system convert the compound into the more toxic nitrite. Consequently cattle, and other ruminants, are more sensitive to nitrate poisoning. Nitrite is absorbed and interferes with the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood. Water analyses usually report nitrate levels as nitrate-nitrogen. Conversion factors must be used to compare nitrates and not nitrate-nitrogen.

Water nitrate-nitrogen levels below 100 ppm are considered safe. Levels in the 100-300 ppm range may cause problems when feed levels are high. Water concentrations above 300 ppm should be avoided. Affected animals show signs of oxygen deprivation with labored breathing, trembling, recumbency and even death. Poisoned animals can recover fully with prompt treatment and removal of the offending feed and/or water supply.

Drought is weighing heavily on the minds of producers in the High Plains. A lot of discussion is centered on drought contingency plans. We need to be cautious about forging ahead with blinders on. Water quality – as well as quantity – is critical to the ranches foresight.

Deep wells are the only consistent source of water with all other sources dependent on Mother Nature. However, the quality of water should not be overlooked from any source. Testing a sample of water for quality usually runs less than $20. Contact our clinic if you would like more help with your water quality issues.

Softening of the cerebrocortical gray matter distributed in a laminar pattern (translated – softening of the gray matter of the brain). This disease process is often called polio for short and should not be confused with the virus that affects people. Polio is caused by one of three conditions: lead poisoning, water deprivation or salt toxicosis, and derangements of sulfur/thiamine levels.

Kenny Barrett Jr. is a veterinarian at the Belle Fourche Veterinary Clinic in Belle Fourche, SD and pens “Cow Tales” monthly. Learn more about the clinic at, or drop them an e-mail at: to suggest a topic for the next installment of “Cow Tales.”

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