Water: The most important nutrient

By Garth Ruff, Beef Cattle Field Specialist, OSU Extension

At a recent East Central Grazing Alliance pasture walk in Noble County I was invited to speak on the broad topic of water for livestock. Hopefully by now we all know that water is the most important nutrient for all living organisms and without water, production agriculture today would look very different.

Water Quantity

One of the first discussion points regarding water, is quantity – how much water do we need for animals to perform at optimal levels? Do we have enough flow rate from our source to maintain several animals drinking at once, and is our drinking tank large enough?

Water requirements for beef cattle depend on body weight, stage of production (gestation vs. lactation), and temperature.

Generally, cattle will consume 1 gallon of water per 100 pounds of bodyweight during cooler weather and nearly twice as much on hotter days.

Springs are handy sources of water especially in Eastern Ohio. However often spring developments and drinking troughs are in undesirable locations in our pastures, valleys, or lying wet spots. Even though additional infrastructure is required, consider installing a water holding tank and pumping water to where it is needed. Ideally cattle should not have to travel more than 800 feet to walk to water.

If you have been following along with current events and recent weather patterns, we have been very fortunate to continue to get timely rainfall here in the Eastern Cornbelt. Our farming and ranching colleagues in the western half of the US have not been as fortunate and have had to alter their management practices or cull large numbers of beef cows as this drought lingers on.

Water Quality

We cannot manage what we do not measure. There are several accredited laboratories that regularly test water quality for livestock operations. When evaluating results of a water sample there are several key pieces of information that we should evaluate. At a minimum a water quality analysis for livestock will include total dissolved solids or salinity, pH (acid or alkaline value), nitrates, sulfates.

Sedimentation and Total Dissolved Solids

Extremely poor water quality can have adverse effects on animal performance and health. Water quality often varies depending on source with groundwater often being higher quality than surface water. Surface water is more likely to contain greater amounts of sedimentation due to runoff and erosion.

Occasionally I get asked about levels of salt in water. We measure salinity most often as part of total dissolved solids, TDS. To a degree, cattle seem to adapt to moderately high levels of mineralized water and will often avoid highly concentrated saline water.

Recommendations for livestock water used based on total dissolved solids (TDS). Meehan et. al 2021
TDS (ppm or mg/L)                                                     .Effects of Livestock
<3,000Usually satisfactory for most livestock
3,000-5,000May not cause adverse effects for adult livestock.
5,000-7,000Should not be consumed by pregnant or lactating females.
Usually a laxative and may result in reduced water intake.
7,000-10,000Do not use for swine. Do not use for pregnant or lactating
ruminants or horses.
>10,000May cause brain damage or death

When evaluating water quality TSD isn’t the only factor to consider, but if there has been a noticeable reduction in water consumption it maybe a good place to start.


Water pH will indicate acidity or alkalinity. A pH of 7 is neutral with acidic water being less than 7, and alkaline water being greater than 7. Water pH will depend on source and if groundwater, subsoil properties will have a great impact on pH. Limestone ground water tends to be more neutral or alkaline whereas ground water in proximity or a coal seam may be more acidic.

Nitrates & Sulfates

Nitrates in water are often due to some form of contamination, commercial fertilizer, manure, or decaying organic matter. While water can be a source of nitrate poisoning, forages, especially summer annuals can also be a potential source.

Ruminant animals are more sensitive to high levels of sulfate in water than pigs and poultry. Ideal sulfate levels for cattle are less that 500ppm for growing calves and les than 1,000 ppm for mature cattle.

Elevated sulfur intake can bind copper in the diet. If cattle test deficient for copper, a water sample should be tested for sulfates.

If you have water quality concerns reach out to your local OSU Extension office for testing and sampling information.

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