As a sequel to last month’s article about water quantity, water quality is of equal importance. In fact, when water intake problems occur on the dairy, it may be just as much of a quality problem as a quantity problem. Cows have a keen sense of smell and taste and can often detect that there is something “goofy” going on with the water. On the next page is a summary of the 5 ways we assess water quality.

1. Odor and Taste. Cows can detect changes in odor and taste very easily, however, it is not fully understood what specifically cows perceive that turns them away from different water sources. It is suspected that color and cloudiness may play a role. Most changes with odor and taste are attributed to mineral presence in excess or the presence of microorganisms.

2. Physiochemical properties. This is a fancy way of saying changes in pH, total dissolved solids, and hardness. Total dissolved solids is the term used to describe the total amount of inorganic compounds (most commonly mineral or salt) dissolved in the water. TDS in itself is not harmful, but further determination should be done to find out what the inorganic matter is that is driving this number up.

3. Toxic Compounds. These are rarely found high enough to cause problems to people or livestock. Lead, arsenic, cyanide, and mercury would be examples of toxins that may be in water.

4. Excess Minerals. Sulfur, Sulfate, Iron, maganese, and calcium are all minerals that may be elevated. Elevated sulfates and sulfites are usually found in the western northern plains. Elevated iron, manganese, and calcium levels do happen in SW Minnesota, but typically these are not harmful to cattle. They may however, contribute to an off flavor that cattle perceive.

5. Bacteria and Algae. Bacteria and algae contamination is not commonly present in water, but may bloom during sunny, hot, stagnant water. Elevated bacteria and algae levels can contribute to liver disease and an impaired immune system.

How to assess water quality

On the dairy or calf ranch, water should be tested at least once yearly for total bacteria and total dissolved solids. Remember that water quality problems usually manifest as animals not drinking enough water. In this instance you would expect low milk production, low urine output, stiff stools, and low dry matter intake. Loss of body condition or loss of gain usually happens as well, especially in heifers. Transition problems are also commonly encountered during these instances.

Depending on the water quality issue, an excess of water intake or diarrhea can also occur. Sulfates and Sulfites for instance cause diarrhea, especially in animals not accustomed to high sulfates.

If water intake problems occur, ask yourself:

• Are there adequate numbers of watering sources available for each group of animals?

• Are the water sources clean? Do they work properly? Are they clean enough for me and my family to drink out of?

• Is there sufficient water pressure to fill waterers when several cows want to drink simultaneously, even during peak water usage (e.g., during milking)?

• Is there any way that dominant cows could block access to waterers for their meeker herdmates?

• You may also consider utilizing a water meter in water lines that enter the drinkers to monitor water use. Monitor this over a 5 – 10 day period. During this same time, also monitor dry matter intake and refusals at the bunk.

If you suspect a problem with your water intakes or water quality, don’t hesitate to call us at the Veterinary Medical Center or Prairie Livestock Supply at 1-507-372-2957 or 1-800-522-3276.

Leave a Reply