It is time, to start testing your livestock water sources. Limited snowfall and hot dry windy conditions have increased the possibility of poor quality water this spring. Poor quality water can have a negative effect on growth, reproduction, and general productivity of the animal. In some cases, death could occur within days or hours after consumption of contaminated waters or water deprivation. Therefore, continuous monitoring of water quality and quantity are important to maintain a productive livestock program.

Key Factors That Affect Water Quality

  • Salinity

    Salinity refers to the dissolved salts that are found in all water sources. However, salinity can be raised to a concentration that is toxic to livestock. Animals may refuse to drink for several days followed by consumption of large amounts of water or the animal drinks an adequate amount of water but dehydrates as a result of reverse osmosis. In either case, illness or death will result. Animals that have an increased requirement for water (i.e. lactation, pregnancy) will be the most susceptible to the salinity problem. High saline has been detected as a problem in South Dakota in past years. Limited snow run-off and dry conditions along with evaporation are all responsible for increased salinity concentration and should be a warning to producers that possible water problems may exist under these conditions.

  • Sulfates

    High sulfate waters are common in western South Dakota. Polioencephalomalacia (“polio’) is a possible result of high sulfate concentration in your water. The clinical signs of polio include lethargy, anorexia, blindness, muscle tremor, staggering, weakness, the inability to get up and death. Polio is treatable if caught in time. Contact your local veterinarian for assistance in treatment.

  • Alkalinity

    Alkali is a common sight in South Dakota. Excessive alkali can cause physiological and digestive problems in livestock. However, there are few instances where alkali is too high for livestock consumption.

  • Nitrates

    High levels of nitrates can be detected in water but more common sources of elevated nitrates are in forages (i.e. sorghum, sudan grass, oats). Nitrates themselves are not toxic, but the conversion of nitrates to nitrites in the rumen are responsible for conversion of hemoglobin into methemoglobin causing red blood incapable of carrying oxygen resulting in suffocation. Dark brown blood is a good indicator that nitrate poisoning was the culprit.

Monitoring Water Supplies

If you are questioning the quality of your water sources, monitor your water supplies and livestock. Which water supply are the animals drinking from? Are there hoof prints around the water source? Are there other organisms (i.e. fish, ducks, bugs) living in or around the water? What type of condition are your livestock in? What are the climatic conditions? Careful observation may help you solve or limit the possible problems. It is recommended to test your water sources when quality is in doubt. An electro-conductivity test can be done at SDSU Extension Regional Centers and some SDSU Extension County Offices with the possibility of further testing. The electro-conductivity testing is a free service provided by SDSU Extension. Producers can also purchase their own electro-conductivity meters.