Sask. cattle deaths blamed on bad water

Cattle producers are urged to test livestock water sources after tests confirmed that exceedingly high sulfate and total dissolved solid levels led to the deaths of more than 200 head in a pasture near Shamrock, Sask.

Reports received last week indicate water quality throughout southwestern Saskatchewan is worse than many suspected, said chief veterinary officer Dr. Betty Althouse.

Sulfate concentrations in the crown lease operated by Shamrock Grazing Ltd. were more than three times lethal limits at more than 24,000 milligrams per litre.

Total dissolved solid levels were 33,400 mg per litre, which is nearly seven times the level at which lactating or pregnant cows should not drink it and nearly five times the level at which the water should not be used at all.

The animals belonging to eight patrons were found dead July 7 in one field of the pasture. Several others have since died and others remain under veterinary care. All surviving animals, about 240 cow-calf pairs, were moved to another field with a good water source.

University of Saskatchewan veterinary toxicologist Dr. Barry Blakley said the water was probably poor quality before the cattle were turned into the field a week before their deaths.

“The water looked OK from a distance, but it actually was highly alkaline and (pasture staff) didn’t realize this,” he said.

The cattle would have been fine for a few days, but the problem got worse as the temperature increased and more evaporation occurred. They became thirstier and drank more water. Their bodies would have shut down.

“It does tend to be a fairly sudden catastrophic event,” said Althouse. “It’s challenging to pick up or prevent.”

Blakley analyzed tissue samples from the cattle and found them to be full of sodium.

“The reality is they died from too much salt in the water,” he said.

The water was so salty that blue green algae, another concern in these weather conditions, wouldn’t even grow in it. Poisonous plants weren’t growing around the dugout either.

“If they’re going to use (this field), they need to provide supplemental water, which is not cheap,” he said.

Ranchers have used the former federal pasture for decades. In previous years more rainfall likely diluted the poor water enough that the animals survived but probably didn’t perform at their peak, he said.

“This year, with hot temperatures and drinking more, the scenario was set up to be a disaster,” Blakley said.

Althouse said short-term measures to provide good water include water tanks and troughs. In the longer term, provincial programs are available to install pipelines.

Glenn Straub, president of Shamrock Grazing Ltd., said patrons were relying on dugouts after some problems with an existing well and water line. Testing of all the dugouts in the pasture was to be completed July 14.

Animal Protection Services of Saskatchewan continues its investigation into the situation.

However, Straub said he doesn’t believe staff was at fault. The pasture employs a manager and several pasture riders.

“I understand they have to do their investigation,” he said.

“I personally don’t believe there was negligence.”

Althouse said all livestock producers should monitor their herds and water sources more often than usual when the weather is so hot.

Blakley added that water analysis will fluctuate by the season. In spring, it may be better because of runoff, and in fall it may be worse because of evaporation.

There could be more deaths attributed to water quality, he said.

“Probably the message is when you have some die, don’t just bury them on the field,” he said. “You should figure out why they died in case it’s something really nasty like anthrax.”

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