Watch Your Water Quality

October 2, 2009 07:00 PM

Even as summer temperatures fade into fall nights, producers still need to keep an eye on cattle water tanks.

Water quality is directly related to cattle performance. Lower water intake impacts animal size, dry matter intake, physical activity, lactation and temperature. Since cattle water intake requirements double as temperatures change from 40°F to 90°F, water quality is very important in summer and fall.

High sulfur levels, caused by large amounts of sulfur left behind from ancient oceanic landforms, can vary within just a few miles, says South Dakota State University (SDSU) Extension beef specialist Ken Olson.

South Dakota has had reports of high sulfate levels in ponds, dugouts and wells. The only option for some cattle producers, Olson says, was to connect to rural drinking water supplies or haul in water.

Test your risk. In 2001 and 2002 studies at SDSU, steers in confinement pens that drank high-sulfate water reduced dry matter intake, water intake and gain compared to cattle with lower-sulfate water.

There are also immediate health effects when an animal drinks high-sulfate water. As sulfur digests in the rumen, bacteria changes it into hydrogen sulfide gas. After the animal belches the gas out, it breathes the gas back in, causing damage to the brain. "Polioencephalomalacia, commonly called polio or brainers, results in lesions on the brain, causing the animal to exhibit signs of having a headache,” Olson says.

Research from Olson and others coming later this year will look at the effectiveness of feed additives to counter the toxicology of sulfates in water and forages.

"If you have high sulfate water levels, it magnifies during drought seasons,” Olson says. From 2002 to 2007 there were many reports of producers unable to turn cattle out to pasture because of high sulfur levels in water and forage.

Consult your local Extension agent for information about water quality testing. University of Missouri Extension specialists suggest all cattle producers test for the following factors: total coliform bacteria, pH (acid or alkaline level), total dissolved solids, total soluble salt, salinity, hardness, nitrates and sulfate. Test for specific minerals, pesticides or heavy algae growth based on your locality. BT

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