There are many factors that affect sound animal husbandry practices for beef cattle, both in confinement and on open range. Supplying adequate nutrition during the different production stages, along with a solid health program and facilities that handle cattle in a stress-free manner are essential management tools for efficient beef production.
Water is the most important nutrient in the realm of beef production. During the average day cattle will consume three-times as much water as they will dry matter. Cattle can live without some feed sources for a period of time, but they will die quickly due to lack of water.
Cattlemen providing sound animal husbandry through different levels of management may be doing it all for naught, if poor water quality is robbing their herd of performance and efficiency. According to Dr. Trey Patterson, South Dakota State University Beef Extension Specialist, Rapid City, South Dakota, high sulfate levels in both surface and subsurface water sources can impact performance and efficiency.
“The driver in most water quality problems is sulfates,” Patterson says. “When we test the water and find high levels of sulfates, performance reductions in cattle are expected.”
By ingesting amounts of sulfur that are above the tolerable level for beef cattle, Patterson says animals are affected in the following three ways:
1) High salts reduce water intake, in turn will reduce feed intake, which reduces overall performance.
2) Sulfur toxicity will lead to polioencaphalomalacia (PEM), a metabolic disorder (not contagious) causing neurological problems in cattle that can lead to death. Cattle go off feed, get depressed and lethargic, which eventually leads to blind staggers, paralysis and potentially death.
3) Sulfur interferes with the availability of copper. This could lead to a trace mineral deficiency and cause long-term problems such as decreased reproductive efficiency.
It seems poor water quality affects cattle in confinement differently than cattle on open range. Still, decreased performance will always take dollars out of the rancher's pocket.
“We saw a .4 pounds per day reduction in gain in confinement steers exposed to poor (sulfate levels at 3,000 parts per million) water and there were sporadic cases of PEM. When we increased sulfates to 4,500 parts per million it decreased gain by one pound per day in a dry lot situation,” Patterson says. “Yearling steers on native range saw performance reduced by .2 to .6 pounds per day, with a few cases of PEM. Lost performance is expensive no matter how you look at it.”
Sulfate levels impact cattle in diverse environments in different ways. According to research data, temperature seems to be a factor that inhibits performance and makes cattle susceptible to stress caused increased sulfate levels.
“With cattle on pasture, we do not see as much disease and the drop in performance is not quite as severe. Range cattle can handle moderate levels of sulfates in water at certain times of the year,” Patterson says. “Temperature has a lot to do with it. Surface temperatures are hot in confinement situations compared with what they are in the pasture, and reduced water intake decreases cattle's ability to deal with elevated heat loads. There is also a fair amount of moisture available in the forages, particularly early in the summer.”
Environmental conditions along with temperature can impact water quality. Once again, Mother Nature shows us she is in charge.
“If surface water is of marginal quality early on in periods of drought. By the end of the summer, it could be really dangerous,” Patterson says. “Drought conditions condense the sulfates, which increases the problem.”
As with any other production inhibitor, cattlemen must identify the problem before it can be managed. By testing water sources cattlemen will know if there is a problem with their water or not.
“There is a high correlation between the presence of salts and the water's ability to conduct electricity. If an electro-conductivity test reveals high salt levels, test the water to see if the salt content is sulfates,” Patterson says. “Initially, producers should test all major water sources in early summer. Depending on the stage of production cattle are in and time of year, producers might be able to get some use out of marginal water.”
If one water source on the ranch is contaminated, it does not mean all water sources have a problem. As producers begin testing water sources Patterson suggests identifying potential problematic sources and formulating a management plan to deal with the potential hazards.
“There is value in knowing what water quality is. Producers could have toxic water at one source, then go a mile away and have better water than the rural water system,” Patterson says. “Summer is the most critical time because of temperature. If salts are present in a surface water source in early summer, test that same source in late summer to see if the salts have condensed. Marginal water sources need to be monitored every year.”
By testing major water sources, cattlemen will have identified potential problems. If sulfur levels in marginal water do not reach toxic thresholds, grazing systems may be developed to take advantage of certain water sources during different stages of production.
“Build water quality into the management and grazing system to help provide cattle with adequate water needs during critical production times,” Patterson says. “If you have marginal water quality, do not use it for high producing livestock, such as right before or during calving season. Use this water in periods when it is not too hot and consult with your veterinarian and a nutritionist when cattle are going to be exposed to bad water.”
Some range cattle will still produce at expected levels with marginal water quality. However, other long- and short-term effects may be present, even noticeable in the cowherd. These effects will impact the cowherd differently year after year depending on the level of sulfates cows are drinking bad water.
“We exposed cows and calves to water that contained 2,600 parts per million sulfates,” Patterson says. “Cows lost body condition, but there was no pronounced difference in weaning weight. The potential to lose cattle is always there, depending on water quality and the conditions under which they are exposed to it.”
As cattlemen develop management plans to deal with water quality problems, each producer will identify lost profit potential associated with marginal/poor quality water. This plan will be incorporated into the management system to provide sound animal husbandry to the herd.
“Producers need to identify the potential problems and develop a plan to manage around it,” Patterson says. “If producers can't manage around the poor water, then it is time to develop new water sources.”
Although developing new water sources sounds like an expensive proposition, funds are available in a lot of states that will help producers make improvements.
“By checking with the local NRCS office, there are cost-share programs available for water development,” Patterson says. “If producers are going to drill new wells, look at past well logs and water quality. There is also potential for some to tap into rural water systems.”
Unlike most problems facing the beef industry, the answer to poor water quality cannot be found in a vaccine bottle or by changing the genetic makeup of the cowherd. This is a problem that is unique to each individual rancher and the resources available to manage it from year to year.
“Unfortunately, at this point, defining the problem is easier than the solution. Most solutions are extremely individual,” Patterson says. “Awareness allows producers to begin to manage the problem.”