Hope and Haul Water
Dealing with water issues in a dry spring
As of this week, 80 percent of the High Plains area is in some form of drought. Producers all over are struggling, but North Dakota is especially dry: 75 percent of the state is in “extreme drought” according to the United States Drought Monitor. Grass isn’t growing, hay prospects look dismal, and cattle are wandering to their watering holes and finding them dry.
It’s not just a lack of water that’s concerning, though. Water quality takes a real hit during a drought, and some sources suffer more than others. “The most at-risk sources are going to be anything that gets replenished through runoff – dugouts, stock dams, any of those pond-like sources,” says NDSU extension agent Miranda Meehan. “The runoff helps dilute the salts and other minerals in that water source.”
Rancher Tyler Campbell says his stock dam is “about 8-foot lower than it usually is, because there hasn’t been any runoff from the winter, or even since last fall. It’s shallow and muddy, and it’s really tough for any of the livestock to water on it when it gets like that.”
“When it’s dry and hot and high winds, we are actually evaporating that water in these dams, for instance, and concentrating those salts,” says Robin Salverson, SDSU’s leading water quality extension agent. “If we don’t get enough snow to melt and run off into those dugouts and dams and freshen them up, we keep that concentration of salts.”
Normally, rivers are at less risk, says Meehan – but in North Dakota, the drought is so extreme, they are seeing some problems, especially with the more intermittent streams.
Campbell uses the Cedar River to water his livestock, but he worries. “Right now, that’s still running okay, but on dry years it seems like that can get pretty low, and you get some stagnant areas in there, too.”
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Declining water levels can be an indicator of suspicious water, but beyond that, there’s not much you can spot with the naked eye. And sometimes, toxicity doesn’t even affect palatability. That’s why water testing is so important, says Meehan.
One of the only toxins you can see outright is cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae. Not all algae is bad, but these harmful algal blooms are some of the biggest problems for stagnant surface water during drought. Hot, dry weather is a breeding ground for the algae that causes severe illness and death in cattle. Signs of cyanobacteria toxicity include diarrhea, lack of coordination, and trouble breathing.
North Dakota saw blooms as early as June last year, and Meehan suspects this year will be the same.
You may not be able to see bad water, but your cattle might. If you notice that your cattle aren’t drinking as much, Salverson suggests immediately testing your water source.
“The influence on the animal is that they stop drinking the water, and then they lose weight. If they’re not drinking water, then they’re not consuming feed,” says Salverson. “It’s the most important nutrient we have, that the animal needs, but it’s the one we overlook the most.”
When they do ingest toxic water, livestock are at risk for salt poisoning, copper deficiency, diarrhea, and serious central nervous system problems, including a brain disorder called Polioencephalomalacia (PEM).
According to Meehan, the issue they visit with ranchers about the most is the salt component, or the concentration of total dissolved solids (TDS).
“The threshold where we start to see some adverse effects and performance is 3,000 parts per million [ppm]. Then we get to 5,000, we see more of a laxative impact, reduced intake. Above 7,000, it can put those pregnant and lactating females at risk. And 10,000 is deadly – it can cause death or brain damage if it’s consumed at those levels,” says Meehan. “We have actually had some water sources sampled in the western part of the state that have exceeded that threshold already this spring.”
Of specific concern are the sulfates, says Meehan. “We had a case in the northwest part of the state, where a producer lost 6 head of cattle because of high sulfates already this spring.”
“The biggest thing we recommend is just monitoring – go out there and check that water before you put animals out there,” says Meehan. “There’s a couple tools you can use. Most of our extension agents in North Dakota have a handheld electroconductivity meter, which can give you a measure of TDS levels. We recommend that if that reader gives you a reading above 4000 ppm, to submit to a laboratory for additional analysis.”
Producers can either request on-site testing or bring in a water sample to the office – both are usually free of charge.
Alternatively, Meehan suggests purchasing sulfate test strips. All you have to do is dip a strip in your water and match it to the color pattern on the bottle to get a quick estimate of your sulfate levels.
Even better, invest in your own electroconductivity meter for about $65, says Salverson. It’s quick and easy, and a lot cheaper than dealing with a fatality in your herd.
Ag researchers are always trying to find new solutions to the old water problem. To offset the effects of high levels of sulfates in the water, Salverson has tried feeding more dietary thiamin. Unfortunately, it wasn’t sufficient.
At Fort Keogh’s Livestock and Range Research Laboratory in Miles City, Montana, researchers have been working on a similar project for years. According to their research ecologists, “Floating islands have successfully been used to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus levels in water bodies such as sewage lagoons or ponds that receive runoff water from agricultural lands with elevated nutrient loads. We attempted to see if floating islands planted with sulfur-hyperaccumulator plants could be used to reduce high sulfate levels in reservoirs used for cattle drinking water.
“Unfortunately, even the best sulfur-hyperaccumulator plants are likely to store miniscule amounts of sulfur relative to the amounts of dissolved sulfate in rangeland reservoirs.”
In other words, the sulfur-sucking plants work, just not nearly enough. For now, Fort Keogh researchers echo Meehan’s and Salverson’s advice: test your water during routine activities, and keep testing.
Meehan says, “Continue to monitor that water source. As the drought progresses, something that is safe now may not be safe to use in July.”
Until researchers find a better solution, though, there’s not much else you can do.
“Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can put in the water to change it. Of course, people can put in a filtration system, but that can be pretty cost-prohibitive to do,” says Salverson. In 20 years with the extension service, she’s never seen it done with a surface water source.
Salverson suggests moving your animals, and if possible, put in an above-ground pipeline if you’ve got another nearby water source that you can pump out of. Most producers, though, will just resort to hauling water, says Salverson, even though it’s the most labor-intensive solution.
Some producers, like Campbell, have taken this opportunity to improve their water source. “There’s a couple different water projects that I had in mind already prior to this drought, so this kind of just spurs you on to get it done.” According to Campbell, who just put in a new pipeline and tank, “That will hopefully make things better, so you don’t have to rely on the stock dams and dugouts.”
In response to the extreme drought, North Dakota has reactivated the Drought Disaster Livestock Water Supply Program, which has budgeted $1.5 million to help producers invest in new water systems. In addition, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has a couple of cost-share programs available for livestock water developments.
But even for those who have upgraded their system, drought presents a serious threat.
“The consensus across the board is, it’s just dry. If we don’t get some rain soon, and the grass doesn’t start growing, there’s gonna be a lot of people taking cows to town. We’re seeing that already,” says Campbell.
In the meantime, there’s really only one thing left to do, says one Eastern Montana rancher: “You just hope. Hope and haul water.”
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