Animal Health Matters: Water, the No. 1 nutrient

Chris Chase
Special to the Farm Forum
Chris Chase, professor at South Dakota State University

(Editor's note: Russ Daly, the writer of Animal Health Matters, is currently on vacation until May 2023. Guests columnists from the region will be writing this bi-weekly publication during his absence.)

When we talk about nutrition, we talk about essential amino acids, energy, trace minerals but often we overlook the most important nutrient: water. Good, quality water is the most essential nutrient.

There is a direct correlation between water consumption and feed intake and the immune system effectiveness is dependent on properly hydrated animals. We know that heat stress and dehydration dramatically effect an animal’s resistance to disease. In a study in Texas where cattle that were under “high stress”- long haul on a truck without feed and water and sourced from multiple herds and then the bulls were castrated on arrival. the highest risk factor for the animals was dehydration- they were 3.6 times more likely to develop shipping fever.

In another study in Oregon, they had three pens of cattle - one group they didn’t feed or water for 24 hours and they never left the pen, one group was put on truck and driven from eastern Oregon to western Oregon and back without any rest or feed and water and a third group that was transported to western Oregon taken off the truck and feed and watered and put back on the truck for the return trip to eastern Oregon. The two pens that weren’t feed and watered showed the highest signs of shipping fever and their performance was less.

In raising nursing dairy calves, often we don’t provide supplemental water. A study at Iowa State showed that calves given supplemental water from birth grew better, were healthier and had better overall performance than calves who started getting water at 17 days of age. Remember, water consumption is essential for good human health, too. Drinking coffee, pop or “adult beverages” doesn’t make up for the requirement of consuming 6-8 glasses of water a day. It is important when you are traveling that you drink water, proper hydration is going to make all your body defenses operate properly when you are at higher risk because of all your “co-mingling”.

What about snow as a water source? Growing up we raised sheep and cattle. There were plenty of tough winters in northeastern South Dakota, that between the Arctic temperatures and the snow fall, it was difficult to get water to the animals.

My Dad, who was raised “in town,” always said that as long as there was fresh snow, the animals would be OK. I was always skeptical of his wisdom, but you know what, my Dad was right.

There has been some good research on snow and beef cows and Mr. Jim Keyes at Utah State has a nice summary. Here are a couple studies he discussed.

A group of pregnant beef cows were provided only snow as a water source. A similar group of cattle were given access to heated water. Cows eating snow consumed between 30 and 40 pounds of snow per day to meet their water needs. Cows with access to water drank 2 to 3 gallons, but also ate 7 to 25 pounds of snow. In the end, there was no difference in average milk yield or body weight between the two groups of cattle or the calves they produced.

Another study in Montana showed that when cattle have access to water and snow, 2% of cows never drank any water, and only 65% drank water every day. The other 33% drank every second or third day while eating snow the rest of the time. There was no visible difference in the appearance of any of the animals.

The key to remember is that it takes energy for the animal to melt the snow. The animals must have good body condition scores around 4 and must be in good health. There need to be good feed intakes for the animals - remember, water intake directly affects feed intake. There needs to be an alternate water source if there is not enough good snow. Remember the key is “good snow”- not ice-covered, or manure-covered snow. It takes 4 inches of snow to get a ½ inch of water.

One thing that makes sense is that “eating snow” is a learned behavior. It can take some cows four or five days to learn the technique. It’s always best to put inexperienced cows with herd mates that have experience using snow. Proper water consumption in all its forms is the key to healthy and productive people and animals.

It has been my pleasure to provide a couple of guest columns for Dr. Daly as he is on sabbatical and is enjoying slightly warmer temperatures than we are in the Upper Midwest. Enjoy the winter, but spring will be here soon.

Chris Chase is a professor at South Dakota State University.