Prioritize a water source in a rotational grazing system

Dean Kreager, Licking County Agriculture and Natural Resources Educator

Water, the most important nutrient!

Water is the most important nutrient for grazing animals.  Without it they won’t live a week and with limited or poor-quality sources they won’t perform up to their potential. Often availability and placement of good quality water sources is the biggest limiting factor to designing pasture lots.  Figuring out ways to split pasture lots and still have a nearby water source is a challenge.

We are often reminded of the benefits of rotational grazing and frequent movement of animals. Improved pasture productivity, increased stocking density, better distribution of nutrients back onto pastures, and reduction of weed issues all sound great, but what about a water source. Research has shown that beef cattle need 5-20 gallons per day, sheep and goats 2-3 gallons, horses 10-15 gallons, and dairy cattle 15-30 gallons. Finding ways to meet the needed water demands can improve the efficiency of pasture use.

The amount of water that needs to be available at one time will depend on the distance from the grazing location.  When animals are grazing within 600-900 feet of their water source, they will tend to individually access water or go in small groups. Having a source where about 3% of the animals can drink at one time should be sufficient. If the animals are over 900 feet from water the source, they will tend to go as a large group and stay there for a while. The source should be able to handle 5-10% of the animals at a time and have a much faster refill rate than when the animals are close to the water source.

Water quality is also very important. Contaminants in water sources such as mud, bacteria, algae, oil, fertilizers, feces, and urine may reduce consumption and/or cause illness. Research has shown that animals prefer to drink from clear sources over muddy or contaminated sources. In some cases, limiting access to streams and ponds can help with this problem and reduce contamination of these open water sources. Small, fenced, and stoned access areas can reduce loitering and keep these areas cleaner.

Dissolved solids and minerals can be an issue and can be tested on water sources.  If lab results show a total dissolved solids level above 5000 parts per million the water source should not be used. Both pond and groundwater sources can be tested. There are also specific minerals that can reduce performance or limit intake if they are too high. These include sulfur, manganese, and iron. These can also be tested. I remember drinking sulfur water at my grandparents and understand why livestock would avoid it.

Contamination of water sources with fertilizer or manure can lead to high nitrate levels in the water. We often think about nitrate poisoning coming from forage, but the water source is another possibility, especially with a pond that receives field runoff.

Temperature of the water source can also affect intake and performance. Large water tanks that sit in the sun can reach temperatures that animals prefer not to drink. Underground piping and smaller tanks that are quickly cooled with fresh water can help alleviate this issue.

Much of this part of the country is blessed with adequate groundwater and surface water options, although there are areas where the options are limited. Wells, springs, ponds, and streams can all provide options as livestock water sources. Ponds, streams, and springs can provide water opportunities in situations where power and pumps are not easy to access; however, being open sources, ponds and streams result in a balance of finding ways to utilize the water while maintaining a clean healthy environment.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has been provided additional federal funding to support projects that improve the environment and improve grazing practices. The EQIP program, that is operated by NRCS, takes applications for many improvement projects such as livestock water source improvements.  If you have been putting off improvements to your livestock watering ability, this may be a good year to contact your local NRCS personnel and get more information on your ability to take part in their program and receive cost sharing.

If you prefer to do something on your own, you might want to take a look at the many available resources through Extension and other sources that could provide information for making watering facility improvements on your own.