While ranchers may give great consideration to their cattle’s diets, making sure to give the appropriate balance of carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, and minerals, they may be a little less vigilant about another key substance — water. Like all living things, cattle are made up of mostly water — approximately 75 percent. Insufficient water in cattle can have a negative impact on the quality of beef, while efficient weight gains depend upon appropriate hydration.
Requirements for water intake go beyond just replacing water lost through excrement and sweat. Cattle need a significant amount of water to be able to digest grass material, and thus their appetites will fluctuate with the supply of water. Cows that are calving will have increased water needs for both gestation and lactation. The University of Georgia published guidelines for the estimated water needs of cattle — approximately two gallons per 100 pounds of body weight for growing calves or lactating cows, one gallon for bulls and non-lactating cows. Keep in mind, this total also includes water received in high moisture feeds, such as silage, green chop, or pasture.
Cattle’s instincts, in regards to water, are fairly strong. If they feel that water is limited, they will devote their time to keeping the access they have, monopolizing water sources when they find them, at the expense of time grazing. Limited access to water can lead to competition between animals and increased stress levels – both of which will have an impact on the final quality of the beef.
The amount of water available is not the only factor cattle will consider – the quality of the water will also determine the cattle’s intake. If the only source of water available is low-quality, the animals will only voluntarily limit their intake, drinking only the water they need to survive – which will prevent them from maximizing their weight gains. Additionally, stagnant water is at risk for developing blue-green algae, which can be toxic to cattle.
When developing a watering system for cattle, a rancher needs to be mindful of all of these factors. Reliable access to good, clean water can easily be the difference between profitability and loss.