Dry summers cast light on water quality

OLDS, Alta. — When 200 cows died in Saskatchewan after drinking from a contaminated dugout, it foreshadowed future problems with high salt content in water across the Prairies.

“If we don’t get the snow or there is very little runoff and we get another hot summer, that water is going to evaporate and the level of sulfates are going to increase some more,” said Barry Yaremcio, beef and forage specialist with Alberta Agriculture.

“If things go against us this winter and next summer, we could have even more problems,” he said at a recent beef cattle workshop in Olds, Alta.

Water samples collected from the Saskatchewan case revealed a sulfate concentration of more than 24,000 milligrams per litre.

Cattle need fresh clean water to thrive.

“When you get more than .4 percent sulfur in a ration, the pH drop in the rumen is fairly significant and enough to destroy the bacteria in the rumen and the B vitamins, especially thiamine,” he said.

A thiamine deficiency in cattle may cause the brain to swell, killing the animal.

A 1,400-pound lactating cow on pasture consumes about 60 litres of water per day. In hot weather, water consumption doubles so producers must monitor temperature, water intake and sulfur in diet.

In recent years, producers have been encouraged to fence dugouts and pump out the water to troughs. Doing so improves water quality so drinking water contains less muck, manure and contamination and cows drink more.

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