Adult cattle, sheep and horses are able to use snow as their primary source of water, reports Rick Rasby, animal science professor at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln, according to studies conducted in Canada and the United States.
The studies indicate that the heat produced from feeding/grazing and normal body metabolism is apparently more than adequate to melt the ingested snow and bring it to body temperature. There were no metabolic differences observed between animals given snow or water, and there is apparently no additional metabolic energy required for cattle wintered in this manner. The Canadians concluded that snow provided producers with an additional option as a water source for livestock during the winter.
Rasby says Quinn Cattle Company in Northwest Nebraska working with Animal Scientist at the University of Nebraska, has applied this research to their ranch with excellent results. Over a five year period, they have wintered adult cows from 45 to 70 days with snow as their major source of water. They stressed the importance of cattle knowing how to eat snow because it is a learned behavior.
It is also critical adequate snow is available, and it does not form a hard crust, preventing them from obtaining enough snow to meet their needs.
Rasby says it appears snow is a viable water source for cows that are gestating, especially if there is not a thick, hard crust. Reports also indicated that the fetus is not compromised. It has been reported that cows that are lactating can not obtain enough water from snow and milk output will be reduced.