This article appeared in the October issue of Drovers CattleNetwork.

As winter approaches, it’s as important to plan for adequate water supplies as it is for cold-weather feed.

In part, this is because in warm months we seem to be more aware of cattle water needs because we are thirsty ourselves. During winter months, it is easy to ignore the requirement because our concerns turn to feed and shelter for our cattle and our own thirst quotient goes down.

The National Research Council says water is the most common molecule in the cow’s body — 98 percent of all molecules. It is involved in nearly every function, including regulation of body temperature and physiological processes including growth, reproduction, lactation, digestion, metabolism, joint function, eyesight and mineral balance.

Water also is the main transport medium for glucose, amino acids, mineral ions, water-soluble vitamins and transport of waste.

Regardless of time of year, if livestock don’t drink enough safe water every day, feed intake and production will decrease and the producer will lose money. Water constitutes 60 to 70 percent of the animal’s body, and consuming water is more important than consuming feed. Cattle have little ability to adapt to water restriction.

If you look at Table 1 you’ll see a dry cow needs more than one-third as much water on a day with a 35° F high as she does on a day with a 95° F high. Further, you might notice from this chart that water requirements don’t drop much once daytime highs get to 65° F and below.

Table 1. Estimated daily water intake of cattle in gallons per day

Daily

high temp

(Fo)

Cows nursing calves1

Dry and

bred

cows

Bulls

Growing and finishing cattle

400 lb.

600 lb.

800 lb.

1000 lb.

35

11

6

7

4

5

6

8

50

13

7

9

5

6

7

9

65

16

8

11

6

7

9

11

80

18

11

13

7

9

10

14

95

20

15

20

11

15

17

19

Adapted from University of Nebraska

1First four months of lactation

“In colder weather, cattle need to consume more feed to meet energy needs,” says Rhonda Gildersleeve, University of Wisconsin grazing specialist. “For every 1 pound of dry matter consumed, cattle need to drink about 7 pounds of water to maintain desired levels of dry-matter intake.”

She explains animal performance suffers because feed intake is suppressed when adequate access to good-quality water is not available. As a result, weight gains, lactation levels and calf growth rates are reduced, so ranch production goals will be negatively impacted.

When water actually freezes, it requires more attention than usual, says Jane Parish, Mississippi State University beef cattle specialist. For example, outdoor water supplies in shaded areas are typically slower to thaw than water supplies insulated from environmental temperatures or exposed to direct sunlight.

“If water supplies are turned off during extremely cold conditions, it is important to monitor cattle water tanks and to resume water flow in a timely manner,” she says. “Water troughs can be installed that are designed to better withstand freezing conditions. Strategic water-trough automatic valve and pipe placement can eliminate need for electric water heaters in freezing temperatures.”

“Many producers prefer to provide livestock unlimited access to water using a heated water source situated in a suitable location,” Gildersleeve says.

She adds that products and plans for livestock water systems are available which can keep water unfrozen using solar and geothermal energy sources to minimize costs and provide access in pasture locations some distance from ranch headquarters.

Fears is a freelance writer from Georgetown, Texas.