Bad water

March 29, 2009 07:00 PM

Rick Lundquist

I've seen some bad water in the places I work--from rotten egg smelling hydrogen sulfide water in Florida to the Mexican desert where water was so salty that cows wouldn't drink it to water coming out of the ground at 110 degrees in Arizona. Bad water is more common than one would suspect, and it can cause reduced consumption, loss of production and impaired cow health.

Dr. Dave Beede, who has become the dairy industry's water guru, recently presented a paper at the Western Dairy Management Conference on what to do about bad water. According to Beede, the most common water quality problems are high iron (greater than 0.3 ppm) and high sulfate + chloride (greater than 1,000 ppm).  High sulfur in the form of hydrogen sulfide is differentiated from sulfate and is also a common problem.

To determine the quality of your water, send samples to a certified lab for testing. Generally, I ask for the "Livestock Suitability” test. Sampling procedures can be seen at:  Click on Extension and then "Taking a Water Sample”.

So, what do you do if you have a water problem?  The best long term option is to switch to a different water source such as a new well or a municipal source. Otherwise, you may need to treat the water. Some options Beede recommends for removal of iron are: chlorination with filtration, cation-anion exchange systems, ozonation, reverse osmosis and/or an oxidizing filter. For sulfates and chlorides:  reverse osmosis or distillation. Any of these systems can be expensive to purchase, operate and maintain. So, careful consideration of capacity, treatment rate, guaranteed life of the system and service after the sale are important. You also need to test water regularly to make sure the system is continuing to work.

I've worked with dairies that have truly bad water. Water supply and quality should be one of the first considerations when deciding where to build or buy a dairy. It can make or break a dairy. Many dairies have good water, but don't manage it well by not providing enough troughs or space around the troughs. Regular maintenance and cleaning of water troughs is imperative. I had a client once tell me after starting regular water trough cleaning procedures that it was the closest thing to producing free milk that he'd ever seen.

Beede cautions there's a lot of "hokus pokus” out there when it comes to water treatment systems, and there's always someone willing to sell you a system whether you need it or not. Remember the old adage, "You can fool some of the people some of the time…and that's enough to make a decent living”.

Source: 9th Western Dairy Management Conference Proceedings, March 11-13, 2009.


--Rick Lundquist is an independent nutrition and management consultant based in Duluth, Minn. You can contact him at

This column is part of the Dairy Today e-Update newsletter, which is delivered to subscribers biweekly and includes dairy industry analysis, dairy nutrition information as well as the latest dairy headline news. Click here to subscribe.



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