Water for stocker cattle is a whole lot like the snow and rain it comes from: as the adage goes, when you’ve got it, you can’t imagine not having it, and vice versa.

For producers emerging from drought this spring, Bruce Anderson, University of Nebraska Extension forage specialist, says now’s the time to ponder the possibilities of providing water to pasture cattle in tanks rather than ponds.

“Tank water can be healthier for cattle, and they usually prefer it to ponds or creeks,” Anderson says. “It may be cooler and offer easier access. Plus, when cows walk into ponds and creeks, they stir mud and sediments into the water and often deposit animal wastes.”

Before you dismiss the notion because of economics, Anderson explains, “Reports from Montana, Oregon, Canada and elsewhere show that the higher water quality found in tanks provides a boost in cattle gains. Calves can weigh an extra 50 lbs. at weaning when tank water is available instead of dirty ponds. Yearling steers can gain an extra 0.3-0.4 lb./day. With this much added performance, pumping water out of ponds, creeks or wells and into tanks can be paid off in just a few years.”

Plus, Anderson points out, “Pumping water into tanks usually improves grazing distribution by attracting cattle to graze areas near the tanks instead of spending time standing in or around the ponds or creek. This can increase your pasture’s carrying capacity or grazing season.”

“Drinking water quality should be part of an evaluation when there is a problem with poor cattle performance. The only way to be sure if a problem exists is to test the water,” say University of Georgia (UG) researchers. In “Water Requirements and Quality Issues for Cattle”, Johnny Rossi, UG Extension animal scientist, and Mel Pence, veterinary field investigator, say these are some of the quality factors that should be evaluated:

  • Dissolved solids – Water containing high levels of dissolved solids (greater than 3,000 ppm) can lower feed intake and daily gains of beef cattle. Several studies show total dissolved solids in the 4,000-5,000 ppm range lowered stocker cattle gains. Water containing greater than 5,000 ppm should never be used for cattle.
  • Nitrates – Recommended maximum levels of nitrates in the water for cattle is 450 ppm. When high-nitrate pasture or feed are fed, water contamination can become a serious problem. Death can occur when cattle consume water high in nitrates, but chronic toxicity, which causes the animal to eat less and lowers performance, is more common. Younger cattle are most susceptible to nitrate poisoning. Avoid digging ponds near areas where runoff from cropland or livestock facilities may occur.
  • Mineral content – Sulfur, iron and manganese can also cause water-quality problems, decreasing water intake due to foul flavors and odor. Excessive levels of minerals also interfere with normal mineral absorption, which lead to deficiencies. This is most common with high iron and sulfate levels that bind and prevent the absorption of copper and zinc.
  • Water temperature – Water temperature can affect cattle performance. Cool water helps cattle maintain proper body temperature and leads to increased water intake. Shallow ponds or small water troughs can heat up in the summer and lead to decreased water intake. Deep ponds and groundwater pumped into large water tanks don’t generally heat up enough to affect water intake.
  • Algae – Blue-green algae is a water-quality problem usually seen in surface water that is rich in nutrients. Blue-green algae are actually bacteria that, under the right conditions, can potentially produce toxins that can kill cattle. Toxicity problems usually occur when cattle consume large amounts of the algae in the summer or early fall following a rapid bloom of algae.

To control algae, eliminate the source of nutrients entering the water, aerate the water, or fence cattle away from the pond and pump water to a tank. If the intake pipe in the pond is at least 3 ft. below the surface, intake of blue-green algae toxins is minimal.

Moreover, Anderson explains, “Poor water distribution also transfers nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients as manure and urine are deposited near water sites or along the path to water. Nutrients in these deposits are concentrated and wasted in areas with little grass. A more even distribution of these deposits would grow more grass.”

Though more ponds, windmills, wells and dugouts will help with distribution, Anderson notes they can get expensive, can only be placed in certain locations and aren’t mobile.

“My preference often is to use a pipeline,” Anderson says. “They can be put almost anywhere. And water lines are less expensive than you might think. Most folks can get pipe and frost-proof trenching for less than $1/foot, especially if you can get cost-share funds. You also can leave your pipe on top of the ground, saving trenching costs, if you only need water during the growing season.”