Little to no runoff from snow or spring rain along with hot, dry, windy conditions have led to an early detection of poor quality livestock water in Western South Dakota. Livestock water samples from Northwestern South Dakota have already indicated high levels of total salts. High levels of sulfates in the water have already caused polioencephalomalacia (“polio”) this year in some herds with blindness being reported. Poor-quality water is not limited to Northwestern South Dakota, but to all of Western South Dakota and possibly portions of Eastern South Dakota.

SDSU Extension water testing

It is critical that producers be proactive and test their water sources prior to turning livestock into pastures. SDSU Extension offers an on-site quick test at all SDSU Extension regional centers and some SDSU Extension county offices across South Dakota. View a complete list of SDSU Extension water testing sites to find a testing location near you.

It is well documented in Western South Dakota that water from wells, dams, dugouts and creeks are often high in total salts and especially sulfates regardless of whether the water source is small or large; or has a lot of water or a little. Water sources that are often assumed to be safe, such as spring fed reservoirs and clear appearing water, can still be high in salts/sulfates. The visual appearance of water should not be used to determine if the water is good or bad. The only way to know if water is suitable for livestock is through testing.

Herd health considerations

  • General Health: Poor-quality water will cause an animal to drink less, and as a result they also consume less forage/feed, which leads to weight loss, decreased milk production and lower fertility. Sporadic cases of polio can be seen when high levels of sulfates are present in the water. A common symptom of polio is blindness, but other signs include: lethargy, anorexia, muscle tremor, exaggerated response to sound and touch, incoordination, staggering, weakness, head pressing and eventually convulsions and inability to get up. Polio can be successfully treated if caught early. Thiamine injections and anti-inflammatories are important components of treatment. Antibiotics will not solve the problem. Contact your veterinarian to determine your treatment plan if you have any concern of potential losses due to polio.   
  • High Sulfate Water: Research conducted at the South Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station Cottonwood Range and Livestock Field Station near Philip, SD has evaluated the effect of high sulfate on both cow-calf pairs and yearling steers grazing pastures. Both classes of livestock were negatively impacted. Cows consuming high sulfate water (2608 ppm) lost 36 pounds, while cows on low sulfate water (388 ppm) gained 15 pounds during the treatment period (June 3 to August 26). Yearling steers grazing pastures with high-sulfate water had a decreased average daily gain and a few cases of polio at levels of 3900 ppm and 4600 ppm. More information on the effects of high sulfate water can be found in the SDSU Beef Report on both cow-calf pairs and confinement cattle.
  • Mineral Nutrition: Minerals in the water can also tie-up trace minerals, especially copper. High levels of sulfur and molybdenum (found in forages) binds with copper to form thiomolybdate, which is unavailable to the animal. Iron also binds to copper and decreases the amount the animal can utilize. Having adequate copper in the diet is critical for reproduction and immune function in cattle.

Be proactive and monitor your water and your livestock. Just because your neighbor does not