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Of all the nutrients needed by cattle the one most important, and often most overlooked, is water.

“We tend to think of water needs in the summer, when hot temps cause evaporation and put cattle under stress in-creasing their water needs,” says Bob Larson, veterinarian and professor of production medicine at Kansas State University. “But water is just as important in the winter.”

Several factors contribute to an animal’s water needs, according to Larson, like animal size, type and diet.

“Obviously, the bigger the animal, the greater the daily water requirement,” he explains. A general rule of thumb is 1 gallon for every 100 pounds.

As weight increases, so too will the water needs. A calf near the end of the finishing stage will need more water, as will a lactating cow vs. a dry one.

“One of the more common problems we see is a producer expanding feedlot capacity without adding extra water,” says Larson. “You can’t expand beyond your water source.”

Diet matters

An animal’s feed ration will affect water requirements. Larson says moist feedstuffs like silage provide some of the needed water, as do feed supplements like wet distillers grains or gluten. “The water included in the diet will decrease the water needed from the tank,” he says.

Likewise, dry feeds like dry forage, or even poor quality forage, can increase water needs. A high-quality finish ration will create the largest demand, accentuated by the size of the animal.

Stocker calves consuming a high protein diet that can be high in salt will need more water.

“Be aware when you change rations, water needs will change as well,” says Larson.

Manage the mud

Cattle not only need adequate water, they need to have ready access. “Along with the appropriate delivery rate, storage and well capacity, you have to make the water source easy to get to,” says Larson.

That can especially be a problem with freezing and thawing causing muddy conditions.

“Footing is crucial,” says Larson. “If it is hard to get to the tank, less aggressive animals won’t drink as much as they should.” The problem exists both in the feedlot and the pasture, where access to ponds can be as much a problem as portable tanks.

Tank space is also important. The experts say 8 feet of perimeter is required for 100 head. Others say 10% of the cattle using the tank should be able to drink at any one time.

Greater one-time access space is required in range situations where cattle are only allowed near the water source for part of the day.

Keep it clean

Water quality matters. Whatever the season or source, drinking water must be kept clean of debris, feed and feces. “Cattle prefer visually clean water,” says Larson. “If it is not, they may not drink as much as required.”

If using a well as the water source, be sure to test the water periodically to ensure continued safety.

Winter woes

In much of the U.S., winter brings the added pressure of keeping water sources thawed in freezing temperatures.

“If cattle are without water for several hours while the tank thaws, you could be headed for health and production problems,” says Larson. “They can’t be without for very long.” Frost free, or freeze proof, watering systems are gaining in popularity. A substantial investment, they are an attractive alternative for some producers tired of chopping ice in early morning hours.

No matter your system, winter weather will arrive and it will test the system’s limits. Be sure to have a plan in place for how to get the water flowing in the most severe of weather events.

“Water is the most important nutrient,” says Larson. “It’s needed the most frequently, and you can get into all sorts of trouble if you don’t have it. We spend a lot of time thinking about protein and energy, but water is important, too.”