Establishing a grazing system requires time and money, and perhaps no component is as time-consuming and expensive as developing a water source.
“To me, it’s the No. 1 reason many paddocks don’t exist,” says Patrick Wall, Extension beef specialist with Iowa State University. “It’s extremely difficult to establish.”
Wall says there are a variety of systems cow-calf producers can use to provide water to pastures. Those include gravity flow systems, nose pumps, pond access or even rural water.
Producers can always haul water to pastures, but “it’s a lot more time consuming than folks realize,” Wall says.
One of the more reliable systems is using an electrical pump to fill a stock tank, but running a water or electric line can be costly. Wall says some producers use solar panels to generate the power needed to fill the pump, but that also costs money.
Gravity flow systems can channel water out of a pond and into the tank, he says.
If cattle are allowed to drink out of a pond, Wall says most of it should be fenced off to give cattle limited access and prevent major erosion issues.
As temperatures rise, so does water intake. Julie Walker, Extension beef specialist with South Dakota State University, says cattle will need roughly one gallon for every 100 pounds of weight. For example, a 2,000 pound bull will need 20 gallons of water in a day during periods of hot weather.
“If you have 100 cows, it’s a huge issue to have to spend three to four hours per day filling tanks and hauling water out to the pasture,” Walker says.
She says when grass is lush, cattle can fill some water needs when grazing.
“During the spring, grass is probably 70 to 80% moisture,” Walker says. “This time of year, it’s down to 20 to 25%.”
Lack of water will affect animal health. Walker says since cattle need water to help digest feed, a water shortage may result in decreased intake and milk production, as well as weight loss and potentially death.
She says shallow farm ponds can potentially create issues as water evaporates. Those issues include higher sulphate levels in the water. Blue-green algae is also a concern, but Walker says it is late enough in the season that algae may not be a major issue.
She says shallow ponds should probably be tested to determine water quality.
“You need to make sure it’s safe for your livestock,” Walker says. “If cows get thirsty enough they will drink just about anything, but you want to make sure the water is suitable for them.”