In A Drought, Water Woes Abound

Shrinking stock water ponds aren’t the only water concern in a drought.

Burt Rutherford, Senior Editor

April 4, 2013

3 Min Read
In A Drought, Water Woes Abound

“In a drought, everything that can go wrong, goes wrong. And it’s compounded in more ways than you think.”

For example, says Larry Hollis, Kansas State University Extension veterinarian, take water. “When we get into problems, the quantity is obvious to us, but the quality kind of sneaks up on us.”

Water, he says, is the first limiting nutrient. If cattle can’t drink, they don’t care much about eating. And cows don’t make milk out of thin air.

“If the water isn’t clear enough, the dissolved solids are too high; she may not drink as much, her lactation is going to go down and she’s going to do a poor job of raising her calf. We blame it on the feed, but the water may be the primary driver,” Hollis says.

Where trouble lies is in dissolved salts, which will concentrate as the water level gets lower and lower in a pond. However, Hollis says you don’t necessarily need to know what everything is in the water; if you can determine total dissolved solids, you can get a good picture of the general quality of your stock water.

Below 3,000 parts per million (ppm), there’s no problem. It’s good, drinkable water, he says. “If it’s 3,000-5,000 ppm, it’s going to start affecting performance. That’s the one that sneaks up on us.”

Cattle are already struggling with performance because they’re short on groceries. But the water plays a part as well. At that level, cattle start losing feed efficiency and develop loose stools. “That’s a dead giveaway that they’ve got too much mineral in their water, the dissolved solids are too high,” Hollis says.

Above 5,000 ppm is where you start to see serious health problems. Cows can abort their calves and can begin to suffer serious health problems of their own.


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“One thing I’d caution you about,” Hollis says, “is that if you’ve got cows that have basically run out of water and you have to move them to better water, don’t just turn them out. If you don’t manage it right, they’ll tank up on that water and the salt that’s already in their system will pull too much water into the bloodstream.” That will cause their brain to swell, he says, which could be fatal.

You can manage that by restricting their consumption until they reach equilibrium. “Put out say a 12-ft. tub, put a couple of inches of water in it and let them come up and drink,” he says. “Then wait a little bit and put a little more in there. Take the whole day to let them get watered up. If you go too fast, if you let them ad-lib drink, they’ll kill themselves because they are water-starved.”


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About the Author(s)

Burt Rutherford

Senior Editor, BEEF Magazine

Burt Rutherford is director of content and senior editor of BEEF. He has nearly 40 years’ experience communicating about the beef industry. A Colorado native and graduate of Colorado State University with a degree in agricultural journalism, he now works from his home base in Colorado. He worked as communications director for the North American Limousin Foundation and editor of the Western Livestock Journal before spending 21 years as communications director for the Texas Cattle Feeders Association. He works to keep BEEF readers informed of trends and production practices to bolster the bottom line.

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