Feedlot calves drink approximately three times their dry matter intake (DMI) in the fall, winter and spring. That increases to about five times their DMI in the summer.

Speaking at the Dr. Jack Walther 85th Annual Western Veterinary Conference in Las Vegas, Dan Thomson, DVM, PhD, Kansas State University, noted that toxicity problems in water most often occur in the summer. "If  you notice the feed hasn't been touched or cattle are huddled around the water tank, then check the water."

Common water problems

Thomson outlined some common water problems on the feedlot, especially for small or newly-received calves:

  • The tank is too tall and the cattle are too small cattle. "Build up some dirt around the tank to give smaller calves a boost," Thomson said.
  • Cattle can't identify the water source. "If you can, pop the plug on the bottom of the tank to create a puddle," Thomson suggested. "Cattle find water by sight, smell and sound. A bawling calf can find the water easier than yearlings because they walk around the pen and bump into instead of standing in the corner and sulking."
  • Not enough water pressure.
  • Not enough linear space in the tanks.
  • Stray voltage.
  • Unfamiliarity with some tanks. Thomson said he has seen two cases of salt toxicosis in cattle eating trace mineral salt packs but then not being familiar with how to operate ball float tanks and drink. "If they are new cattle and don't know how to push the floats down, then bolt the ball down until they know how to drink from it."
  • Cattle defecating in water. Thomson suggested to build a lip of concrete around tanks so that if cattle back up to a tank, the lip keeps them far enough away that they will miss the tank when they defecate.

Design water sources for cattle and give them a lot of space, and they will use their senses to find it, Thomson said. "For new cattle, throw an extra tank in the pen with clean fresh water. Your producers will thank you."