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Virginia Cooperative Extension -
 Knowledge for the CommonWealth

The Cow-Calf Manager

Livestock Update, November 2007

Dr. John B. Hall, Extension Animal Scientist, Beef, VA Tech

Water – Amount and Quality Critical for Cattle

As the drought continues in Virginia, our attention has turn from feed to water.  Many counties are reporting at least some of their producers hauling water to cattle.  Hauling water is an expensive and laborious chore.  Be careful that you are not spending more money on hauling water than the value of the cow warrants.

Quantity of Water
Water is the most essential nutrient for life.  Cattle can live for many days or a few weeks without food, but will die within a few days without water.  Water needs to be fresh, clean and plentiful to ensure maximum intake.  Temperature of the water does not seem to affect cattle very much. Research indicates that cattle readily drink water that is 40 - 90° F.  Water intake will vary with environmental temperature and dryness of the feed.  Cows eating lush grass on a cool spring day will drink much less water than cows grazing the same field in the middle of summer. Water requirements for cattle are given in Table 1.  A good rule of thumb is cattle need 1.5 gallon for every 100 lbs of body weight.

Table 1. Total Daily Water Intake (gallons) as Affected by Temperature and Feed Intake1

Gallons of water/lb drymatter (dm):







500-lb calf (12 lb dm)







750-lb preg. heifer (16.6 lb dm)







1,100-lb dry preg. cow (20 lb dm)







1,100-lb lactating cow (22 lb dm)







1 Adapted from Winchester and Morris, 1956. Water intake rates of cattle. Journal of Animal Science 15:722

Quality of Water
Water quality is usually not an issue in Virginia and the Mid-Atlantic states.  Well water in the region tends to have minimal quality issues except for high lime content or high sulfur.  Spring fed creeks are usually acceptable in water quality as are some ponds.  However, even high water quality creeks and ponds can be sources for leptospirosis infection.

Larger slow moving bodies of water tend to be the sources of most water contamination.  In warmer months, pathogens can build up in these bodies of water and cause disease outbreaks.  This year, the springs feeding many ponds are not flowing, and most pond water levels are below the overflow pipe or spillway.  Therefore, ponds are stagnant and pathogens such as salmonella can build-up in these water sources.  Producers need to be extra vigilant for signs of disease in their herds.

Dr. Dee Whittier, Extension Veterinarian, wrote a good article on salmonella in cattle several years ago (Livestock Update, May 2002).  It can be accessed at

Another possible source of problems is high saline content of the water.  Continued evaporation of water concentrates dissolved minerals in the water.  This is a rare problem in the East, but it is a significant problem in the West.  However, this year water in many of our ponds may be more similar to Western range reservoirs. Table 2 lists recommended uses of water based on total dissolved solids.

Table 2 Recommendations for livestock water use based on Total Dissolved Solids (TDS).
TDS                 Comments                                                                                                      
(ppm or mg/L)
Less than 3,000           Usually satisfactory for most livestock.
3,000-5,000                 May not cause adverse effects to adult livestock.
                                    Growing/young livestock could be exhibit diarrehia or poor feed conversion. At levels near 5,000 ppm the water is unacceptable for poultry.
5,000-7,000                 Should not be used for pregnant or lactating females.
                                    Usually laxative and may result in reduced water intake.
7,000-10,000               Do not use for swine. Do not use for pregnant or lactating ruminants
or horses.
10,000 or more            May cause brain damage or death.                                                    
                                                                                                                                Lardy and Stoltenow, 1999

In addition, to total solids specific minerals may cause problems.  While toxic levels of minerals in water (Table 3) are rare in our area, ponds with high sulfur content can impair uptake of minerals such as copper or create other metabolic problems.  Producers need to be aware of potential problems and check cattle regularly.  Signs of mineral toxicity or impaired mineral uptake can range from brownish hair coats to diarrhea to polio.

Table 3.  Safe levels of potentially toxic nutrients and contaminants in water for livestock.
Element                                   ppm                            
Aluminum                              5.0
Arsenic                                  0.2
Boron                                    5.0
Cadmium                               0.05
Chromium                              1.0
Cobalt                                   1.0
Copper                                  0.5
Fluorine                                  2.0
Lead                                      0.05
Mercury                                 0.01
Nickel                                    1.0
Nitrate-Nitrogen                     100.0
Nitrite-Nitrogen                      10.0
Selenium                                 0.05
Sulfate                                    1,000.0 (500 for young cattle)
Vanadium                               0.1
Zinc                                        25.0                            
From Lardy and Stoltenow, 1999 (Adapted from Shirley et al. (1974).

Water Options
Running out of water or insufficient water is a critical situation in any livestock operation.  Hauling water becomes an expensive chore.  However, some options exist for temporary or different watering options.

Smaller herds can be watered by using a clean or new 1500 gallon nurse tank mounted on a reinforced hay wagon.  The nurse tank is then hooked to a stock tank with a float valve.  The volume of the water plus the height of the wagon creates enough pressure to run water the short distance to the stock tank.  I used this system to water 30 head for 2 months while on stockpiled grass in an area that had no other water source.  Never use a tank that has been used for fertilizer or pesticides for a water tank for livestock.

Even though many creeks are dry some bolder streams are still running.  Installing small dams or spring boxes can allow the use of portable pumps or ram pumps to lift water 30 to 40 feet to a holding tank that can feed troughs.  This is a good option for rented property.

Of course drilling a well may be the best option, but it is expensive.  Due to the cost it may not be practical for many producers.  In addition, it is not a good option for rented pasture unless the land owner is willing to pay the expense.  Information on water pumping options for cattle operation can be found in the VCE publication “Pumping water from remote locations for livestock watering”   Field staff from NRCS are also very helpful with watering systems and some cost share may be available.

The statement that cattle need clean fresh water often causes concern among producers that are using above ground storage tanks. Water can be held in these tanks for several days without many problems. If the algae growth gets too great, tanks should be drained and cleaned.

Lardy, G. and C. Stoltenow. 1999. Livestock and Water. North Dakota State Univ. Extension Publication. AS-954

Winchester, C. F. and M. J. Morris. 1956. Water intake rates of cattle. J. Anim. Sci. 15: 722-740.



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