Drought worsens water woes

Water quality can be affected by higher concentrations of total dissolved solids such as sodium and magnesium. | Buddy Westphal photo

Water is cattle’s most important nutrient, but quality can be inconsistent during exceptionally dry years

When water sources dry up and cattle are wading into the mud of a dugout, it can be unhealthy for both cattle and the water source.

Even if cattle are not allowed into the pond or dugout, a diminishing water supply may contain concentrated salts and toxic substances that could put cattle health at risk.

“My advice is to protect those areas and divert the water into a trough,” says Jim Bauer, a rancher in south-central Alberta.

He has two solar pump systems and a mile of creek that runs through his place, along with several wells and two dugouts.

“We generally have plenty of stock water and have never had a bad issue with water. Some of the ranches east of us, however, out on the prairie, depend on dugouts. They had no snow this year — no spring melt to fill those up. With only a little bit of water and evaporation, the salts and nitrates become more concentrated in that water,” says Bauer.

“We hear about cattle drinking in those dugouts and becoming short of water, and the buildup of toxic levels of some of those salts and other contaminates.”

Bart Lardner of the University of Sask­atchewan agrees that pumping water from a fenced off source is the better option. He says it’s better to fence off the dugout or other source and pipe the water into a trough.

Water is the most important nutrient, yet during a drought, water quality can be inconsistent.

“In warm weather there may be growth of blue-green algae on standing water in mid-to late summer. It can be really prolific in shallow, slow-moving water sources. The algae loves sunshine and lots of nutrients such as manure contamination,” says Lardner.

This algae can cause acute or chronic issues. The first clue that the water might be a problem might be finding a few animals dead.

“Duckweed can be mistaken for blue-green algae but it’s different. The way to treat the algae is to dissipate it, perhaps with copper sulfate. Some people choose to use an off-site water source with a solar-powered pumping system. Some producers have actually covered the water surface with straw or something else just to keep the algae from blooming. Every year we hear about livestock losses from blue-green algae.”

In other situations, water quality may be affected by higher concentrations of total dissolved solids, which are basically salts, such as sodium and magnesium.

“They become more concentrated, as can the sulfates,” says Lardner. High sulfate levels are unhealthy.

As collection ponds and dugouts shrink, due to evaporation and a lack of new water coming in, the salts and “anti-quality” factors increase.

Higher sulfate concentrations can also occur in well water that relies on surface water.

“Sulfates tie up trace minerals (copper, zinc and manganese). Molybdenum in the soil — and thus in the forage — can also tie these up and create an antagonistic effect,” says Lardner.

The producer might wonder why there’s a higher number of open cows in the fall, and this could be a factor.

Nitrates can also become concentrated in the water.

“The important thing is to have less than 5,000 parts per million per total dissolved solids and less than 1,000 p.p.m. for sulfates. Nitrates may accumulate in water from runoff (fertilizer, manure or from a feedyard in the winter) and become an issue,” he says.

“We also worry about fecal coliform bacteria in manure. Water quality can be a huge issue and we always need to be paying attention to it, whether it’s surface water or ground water the cattle are drinking.”

Ian Murray, an Alberta rancher, says he experienced a wreck a few years ago because of sulfates.

“As water sources dried up, the salts were more concentrated. We heard about a big wreck in Saskatchewan a year or two after we had ours. We thought we were doing top-drawer management. We had the dugouts fenced off and pumped the water into troughs. We never considered water quality to be an issue but we were always seeing some sub-clinical health issues that could not be explained,” says Murray.

“Then we were doing some poly-cropping with brassicas and swath grazing. We knew the sulfur levels were elevated but the biggest issue was high nitrates. I ended up baling the swaths and fed it out to the cows as a supplement.

“When we looked at the sulfur (since we were concerned about that issue) the levels we were feeding shouldn’t have been a problem at all, but we didn’t know we had this lurking sulfate in our groundwater. We have a shallow water table that has sulfate in it. The deeper well water is fine, but the shallow wells and the dugouts that didn’t get a good flush of snow melt have a high concentration to begin with,” he says.

“So when we started feeding the baled-up swaths that contained brassicas, it elevated the levels the cattle were consuming, to where we started seeing loss of body condition. Since this baled-up forage was high quality green feed I figured I should just feed more of it — since the cows were going downhill. We got to the point where we just about poisoned the herd.”

This particular problem was a combination of factors, but that’s often what triggers it — issues with both the feed and the water.

“This drove home the importance of knowing what is in the water the cattle are drinking. Testing is cheap, when $100 for a water test could save major problems or prevent loss of cattle,” Murray says.

“Testing might not be something you need to do every year, but it helps to have a base line to give an idea of what you have. Then if it’s an average year and the water quality is testing such-and-such, you can have an idea of what the nitrates and sulfates are.”

In a drier year when the water supply is diminishing and the minerals are concentrating, producers may want to test it again.

“The biggest factor for us was one dugout that had really high sulfate levels. In one drought I actually pumped it out completely and let the water run out into a slough and dissipate,” he says.

“I was then able to source water from another dugout half a mile away and moved that water over …. We replaced the bad water with a source that was safer for the cattle.”

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