Proper water intake and cooling for cattle this summer

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is expecting global temperatures in 2020 to be on track with the highest ever recorded; additionally, the first three months of this year alone were the second warmest in 141 years of record keeping. When it comes to beating the heat, water is key for cattle so producers must have a comprehensive understanding of how much to provide and how to effectively use it to cool livestock.

“Water is the most important nutrient and it does a lot for the body,” said Terry Mader, professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska, Department of Animal Science. “It’s involved in transporting nutrients, regulating body temperature, aids cushioning the organs and tissues, lubricates joints, regulates body pH and acts as a solvent, which is extremely important for kidney function.”

Mader said just providing a tank of water to a large group of cattle is not enough. Producers have to make sure that tank has enough capacity and linear space to allow all of the livestock access to the water.

“If you’ve got 12 animals crowding around a water source in a feedlot situation, you might have another 140 that aren’t getting access to it,” he said. “After a period of four to six hours, if it’s a very hot day, those animals will certainly be compromised if they’re on feed.”

Mader said he typically recommends allocating about three-quarters to one linear inch of space per animal in a feedlot scenario. He also said you should have the capacity to deliver 2 gallons per head per hour.

“Basically if you have a 12-foot or 144-inch water access area, you could water 144 head as long as they come and leave and allow other animals to reach it,” he said. “In a heat stress scenario, we have too many dominant animals that occupy that water space and they might stand there for four or five hours. Based on those situations, we may need 2 or even 3 inches of linear water space in a confinement situation where we have limited water space available.”

For a cow-calf operation, it is ideal to have the capacity for 15 to 25% of the cows to drink at one time. Mader said they need about 12 to 15 inches of linear space per head and producers need to accommodate enough space for calves to access the tanks as well.

“For 25 cows, you need about a 10- to 12-foot diameter tank, and lactating animals are going to eat more, which means they will require more water,” he said. “My best estimate is that for one pound of milk, we need to add about three-quarters of a pound of water. As far as salt, for every 1% added salt it increases water intake about 5%. As humidity rises, heat stress increases because they won’t be able to use sweating as efficiently.”

Quench the thirst of every calf

Mader said feedlot operators must have sufficient backup in their water supply for emergency situations, like if a system or well goes down so there will be enough capacity to back that up and provide enough water to those cattle.

“I have seen situations where feedlots have utilized all their pumping capacity by filling their tanks and using sprinklers, but when a well goes down you start seeing animals being compromised,” Mader said. “In this situation, three to four hundred cattle perished that day because they simply did not have the capacity to replenish that supply.”

As far as watering systems, Mader does not recommend fence-line water sources at feedlots because it limits the animals from accessing water from the entire diameter of the tank. If cattle do not receive enough water, their body temperature starts to rise and feed intake drops. Besides the metabolic needs of the animal, water is also used as a coolant and providing cattle with cool water goes a long way toward keeping their temperatures regulated during a heat wave. Mader said ground water can be substantially cooler than surface water, and encouraged cattlemen to utilize it whenever possible. He warned cattle producers that water offered out of black poly containers on a hot sunny day can warm to 120 degrees. Although the water might not get that hot, it can get warm enough to make it difficult for cattle to properly cool themselves with the liquid. In addition, Mader said small vessels can warm up quickly, and that producers must be cognizant of this factor.

“If we look at the effects of water temperature on intake and performance, the hotter the water, the more we see feed intake drop because the animal is getting warmer,” Mader explained. “The warmer the water, the more they drink because they are just recycling. They drink, urinate, drink, urinate. So it will require more water to dissipate body heat. If we are rearing animals in a hot environment, if we get really warm water temperatures, our water requirement will go up 25 to 50%.”

Spraying cattle to combat heat

Kids love running through the sprinkler in the summer and so do cattle; however, the stakes get higher when producers start this cooling method for their operation. Mader said producers need to understand how much water is needed.

“These types of situations where we’re trying to sprinkle cattle, we can actually double the requirement for water relative to the needs of those animals,” he said. “If you can keep them at or below 104 degrees Fahrenheit body temperature, usually we can keep animal on feed and with a reasonable level of productivity. If animals get too hot during the heat of the day, they don’t have time to cool down at night.”

He said if their temperatures do not get to normal or below, they typically will not resume normal feed intake. If their temperature stays above normal for several days, that is when they die of heat stroke. Mader said black-hided animals, in particular, have very few heat sinks and they are heated even more by the ground, sky and by standing around other animals. There are not many ways to dissipate that heat.

“I can heat my house with the heat generated from two or three beef steers,” Mader said. “If I had one time that I wanted cattle to be as cool as possible, I’d want it to be at 5 a.m. and then they’ll get up, start moving around, eat and resume their normal routine.”

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Mader said sprinklers are the most efficient system as far as keeping animals on feed. It just requires a higher level of management and is higher risk.

“If an animal gets sprinkled one day, he wants to be sprinkled the next day and the day after that,” he said. “Sometimes you’re better off not doing anything and allowing them to adapt to the heat, rather than try to continually try to keep them cooled down. If you have the ability and management tools in place to do that it’s great, but if you miss one or two days, then you start getting animals compromised. Sprinkling water on these animals is extremely addictive and they adapt very rapidly to it. Wetting the ground is sometimes a better alternative than wetting the animal because it gets them to move around to seek the cooler ground.”

When the sun is relentless and temperatures are soaring, enough water each day, keeps the heat at bay.

Lacey Newlin can be reached at 580-748-1892 or [email protected].