Water is the most essential element for the stock cow as it’s availability is directly related to dry matter consumption: Limited water availability results in limited dietary intake. For cattlemen, providing adequate water for cows grazing roughages, where electrical power is non-existent or interrupted by a power failure or where snow is the only moisture source available, snow may provide a short term alternative to water.
Under circumstances such as these, several considerations are necessary to prevent severe weight loss to cows not accustomed to consuming snow instead of water:
- It is not natural for cows to obtain their water needs by consuming snow. Adjustment takes time as it is a learning process for cows. (3-5 days estimated)
- Soft wet snow is more ideal, especially initially as cattle make the adjustment. Snow-packed or granular kinds reduce intake and feed intake suffers as well.
- Snow as the only water source is not recommended for lactating cows, those in a body condition score (three or less), those with limited roughage available or those who may be experiencing health concerns of some nature.
Studies in Alberta, Canada indicate that cows can maintain equal performances and health by consuming snow instead of water. Because cows consume small quantities of snow throughout the day, energy requirements for maintaining body temperature are less than when cows consume large quantities of water once or twice a day, which requires more energy to heat that water up to body temperature.
The key to effective use of snow versus water is to understand that eating snow by cows is a learned behavior and that the kind of snow available is crucial to proper consumption levels. Monitoring the adjustment period of three to five days will allow cattlemen the ability to determine whether cows are balancing snow intake with feed intake to meet the nutrient requirements.