Drinking water study shows beef cattle can tolerate high sulfate levels

Concern remains over interactions with trace minerals in rumen.

April 7, 2020

3 Min Read
USask Penner water sulfate.jpg
Dr. Greg Penner is the associate professor in the USask department of animal and poultry science and Centennial Enhancement chair in ruminant nutritional physiology.University of Saskatchewan

Scientists at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) have published a study that shows that beef cattle can tolerate higher concentrations of sulfates in drinking water than previously believed.

“There are clear and significant implications for healthy animals from the research,” said Dr. Greg Penner, associate professor in the USask department of animal and poultry science and Centennial Enhancement chair in ruminant nutritional physiology.

In Canada, recommendations for suitable or safe levels of sulfates in drinking water range from 1,000 mg to 2,500 mg of sulfates per liter of water, but these recommendations are not science based -- something Penner and his collaborators set out to change, USask said in an announcement.

According to the team’s research published in Applied Animal Science, beef cattle can tolerate up to 3,000 mg of added sulfates per liter of water.

During the project, the cattle drank water with 1,000, 2,000 and 3,000 mg of added sulfates per liter of water to mimic real levels experienced on some Saskatchewan cattle ranches. Regardless of these levels of added sulfates, the cattle continued to drink and eat, resulting in a normal weight gain, Penner reported.

At first glance, the research results seem to be good news for cattle producers who have wells and dugouts containing high levels of sulfates, but Penner is cautious.

The problem is that sulfates in water potentially bind with trace minerals in a cow’s rumen, making those minerals unavailable for the body to absorb and use, he noted.

So, in addition to monitoring water and feed intake and weight gain, the researchers compared blood analyses at the beginning and the end of the study. The level of copper was lower at the end of the study, potentially affecting a cow’s fertility, USask said.

“There could be longer-term effects of higher sulfate exposure in terms of reproductive efficiency,” Penner said. “A producer might not see anything negative in terms of growth rate, feed intake and water intake, but those negative impacts may be hiding deeper — higher sulfate concentrations may be affecting trace mineral status, which could affect fertility.”

The research was the first to be conducted in the highly specialized metabolism barn at the university’s Livestock & Forage Centre of Excellence, located south of Clavet, Sask.

While Penner led the study, he worked closely with collaborators from Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Agriculture, which included Leah Clark, the province’s livestock specialist, and Colby Elford, a livestock and feed extension specialist. University student researchers Jordan Johnson and Brittney Sutherland also worked on the project.

Funding was provided by the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture and the Canadian Agriculture Partnership through the Strategic Field Program. The Roy Romanow Provincial Laboratory provided water quality analysis as an in-kind contribution.

This is the first of a series of studies that Penner will conduct into safe water quality levels for cattle.

His next project, which starts in April, is a three-year study in collaboration with researchers at Texas Tech University, USask’s animal and poultry science department, the Western College of Veterinary Medicine’s large animal clinical sciences department and the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture.

Cattle will receive water with higher sulfate concentrations than were involved in the current published research with the expectation that, at some point, cattle will be negatively affected by the sulfates, USask said.

However, the researchers will also test various ways of interfering with the sulfates binding with trace minerals in the rumen. For instance, bismuth subsalicylate, a commonly found antacid, is known to bind with sulfides. That, in turn, could diminish the effect of sulfates in water consumed by cattle, minimizing the problem before it starts.

Subscribe to Our Newsletters
BEEF Magazine is the source for beef production, management and market news.

You May Also Like