Managing winter water supply

Mature cattle require 1 gallon of liquid water per 100 pounds of body weight.

January 5, 2024

4 Min Read
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By Madison Kovarna, South Dakota State University Extension

Cold weather is here to stay for the remainder of this winter season. This creates a challenge for producers who house their herds in areas where there are limited water resources and available natural water sources (including ponds, creeks, and stock dams) may be frozen over. Even though water supplies are thought of during hot summer weather to aid in cooling of the body, cattle require this nutrient during all seasons. Water is still required for bodily functions and obtaining production goals during the cold, bitter winter months. A general rule of thumb is that mature cattle require 1 gallon of liquid water per 100 pounds of body weight.

Snow and ice

Cattle may ingest clean snow and utilize it to meet their overall water requirements when it is available. Moisture in the form of snow was hard to come by this early winter in South Dakota. We cannot always rely on snow being available, and some cows will not ingest enough snow to meet their water requirements. Water intake is highly correlated with feed intake, and given the lower quality of dormant forages, we want cattle to be able to eat at their highest capacity.

Ice can inhibit cattle’s ability to access water. While cattle may be willing to break through thin ice, it is not a guarantee, and once the ice gets too thick, it is impossible for the animals to break. Ice should be broken periodically to allow access to a water source. This includes natural water sources if those are the main access to water. If breaking ice on a pond or large creek, do not break ice too close to the bank or too far out. Breaking ice too close to the bank causes cattle to agitate the water and mud, reducing water quality; breaking ice too far out increases risks of falls and injuries.

Managing water sources

Water sources should be checked frequently, as cattle cannot go without water for extended periods of time. In periods of adverse weather, a plan should be in place for assuring that cattle have access to water. Cattle may decrease water intake during blizzards and ice storms in an effort to conserve energy resources, however, a minimum requirement for bodily function is still needed. If the water tank is heated by an electrical source, a backup power source should be in place in the event of a power outage. Furthermore, it is important to check for electrical shorts running through the water supply periodically. These currents may deliver a shock to cattle as they attempt to drink, thus lowering water consumption.

When deciding on what portable tank to use to haul water, make sure that it has not been used with any type of chemical (for example, herbicides, insecticides, or strong cleaning chemicals). This includes the pump and hoses used to transport water. If you are unsure if the tank has been exposed to chemicals, do not use it. Small amounts of certain chemicals can have extreme negative effects and may cause death in cattle. Assure these tanks and their parts are cleaned regularly. Water quality is still a concern during the winter months. Additional information on water quality and cattle production can be found on the SDSU Extension website.

Always provide a source of liquid water to cattle. At times, hauling water may be more economical if the herd can graze longer, rather than being fed hay and other harvested feedstuffs. That being said, do not overgraze winter pastures, as this has negative impacts on future forage production. Refer to the article Protecting Your Pastures While Winter Grazing for additional information on protecting your pastures. When deciding whether to haul water to cattle or bring the herd to a location with better access to water, do not forget to factor in the price of time and labor required to haul water. Other factors to account for include distance from filling location to where the cows are located, and time spent filling portable tanks and stock tanks.

Take home points

  • Cattle can ingest snow to meet water requirements; however, liquid water should still be provided.

  • Check water sources regularly and break ice if necessary.

  • Have a backup plan for assuring water access for cattle during adverse weather or power outages.

  • Do not haul water in tanks and equipment that have housed chemicals.

  • Do your homework when deciding if it makes sense to haul water versus moving the herd to a location with better water resources.

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