Drinking Gains

Average Daily Gains Improve Based on Water Source

Victoria G Myers
By  Victoria G. Myers , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Not just any drink will do when you're trying to maximize gains in livestock.(DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Jim Patrico)

Cows, calves and steers on pasture gained significantly more pounds per day, when the water they drank was fresh and pumped into a trough. The comparison was made to cattle that drank directly from a pond.

Caitlin Hebbert, livestock consultant with the Noble Research Institute, Noble, Oklahoma, reports it's easy to forget water is a nutrient. As such it has nutritional value that affects livestock, and its quality changes throughout the season.

In the summer months, specifically, evaporation can concentrate elements in water, reports the consultant. This can lead to excessive salinity, high mineral concentrations, high nitrogen content, bacteria contamination or even heavy growths of toxic, blue-green algae.

Shane Gadberry, animal scientist, University of Arkansas, says this time of the year cattle that aren't drinking as much water as they need can have trouble maintaining body condition.

"It goes back to what would cause a reduction in water consumption, and what can be done realistically to change it," says Gadberry. "On the pond side, a challenge is that as water starts to evaporate the ponds can become very muddy."

He also notes producers should be aware if they fertilize pastures, runoff into ponds can create conditions conducive to higher nitrates.

Water quality matters so much because a beef cow can drink a lot of water in a day, depending on time of year and temperature. During the summer months, some studies estimate she drinks about 10% of her body weight. A lactating beef cow will drink more, some estimates nearly double the amount to 18% - 20% of her body weight. The quality of that water, says Hebbert, has a direct impact on average daily gains (ADG). When water is poor in quality, cattle consume less and they also eat less.

A study from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada shows calves that drank fresh water from a trough had an average daily gain of 2.26 pounds, compared to 1.76 pounds on those calves that drank from a pond. Steers that drank from troughs had ADGs of 2.7 pounds; 2.05 pounds if they drank from ponds. A 9% to 10% increase in weight gain of steers and calves that drank from water pumped into a trough has been shown. As much as a 16% increase in gains has been recorded on stocker steers with access to clean water.

Hebbert notes even a well-maintained pond can rarely compare in quality to water that is pumped fresh into a trough (assuming the trough water source is good quality and not contaminated). Cattle can tell the difference too. She reports cattle will avoid water contaminated with as little as 0.005% manure by weight.

For producers who may want to retain calves this year, or bring in stockers, these differences in gains—based simply on water source--can add up quickly.

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Victoria Myers