Watering Cattle in Winter

How Much Water Does a Cow Drink During Cold Weather?

Watering Cattle in Winter

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By Heather Smith Thomas — Watering cattle in winter is crucial. During cold weather, ranchers need to pay attention to water sources to make sure they don’t freeze. If cattle breeds don’t drink enough, they won’t eat enough, and they’ll lose weight. In some instances, they may become dehydrated and impacted. If contents of one of the smaller stomachs become dry and impacted, feed won’t move through. The tract is thus blocked and unless this situation is relieved, the cow will die. Signs that cattle aren’t drinking enough include loss of appetite, weight loss, and lack of gut fill. Manure will be scanty and very firm.

A moderate size pregnant cow needs about 6 gallons of water daily in cool weather, and twice that much after she calves and is producing milk. The temperature of drinking water should be at least 40 degrees or higher, if possible. If water is colder, cows may not drink enough. Cold water that’s close to freezing may cause temporary paralysis of the digestive tract and the cow will stop eating for awhile, even though she needs a high energy intake to maintain body temperature and heat the cold water in the gut. Sometimes money spent on a tank heater for watering cattle in winter can save a lot of dollars on feed and health costs.

Snow can be used as a water source under certain conditions, if your region gets adequate winter snowfall and the snow stays powdery and not crusted. Cattle must be able to sweep it up with their tongues.

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While cattle can—and will—eat snow, keep a fresh source of water available for them anyway. Snow is not a substitute for watering cattle in winter and all animals should have access to fresh water daily, no matter what the weather.

People used to think that cows eating snow in cold weather require more feed energy to warm it to body temperature, but research trials—with some cattle eating snow and some drinking water—showed no difference in feed intake or weight gains. The cattle using snow for moisture just ate slower. They’d eat awhile then lick snow, eat some more, and lick snow. They consume small amounts of snow all through the day, whereas animals using water will drink just once or twice a day in cold weather. The intermittent eating and snow consumption seems to minimize thermal stress. Heat created by digestion is enough to warm the melted snow to body temperature.

It was also thought that cows deprived of adequate water and having to eat snow would be at risk for impaction, but this isn’t true. As long as cows are able to eat snow, they have enough moisture for proper gut function. Impaction occurs mainly when cows do not have enough water or snow, or when they must utilize coarse, dry forage with low protein levels—not enough protein to nourish the microbes that ferment and digest the roughage. Then the feed moves through the tract too slowly, the cow eats less total feed, and she may become impacted.

Eating snow is a learned behavior, however. Cattle learn by watching other cows eat snow. Those with no role models may go thirsty awhile before trying it. If snow is readily available and cattle learn to use it, they can do very well on winter pastures without water, as long as the snow is adequate but not so deep that it covers the forage.

Cattle Winter
Livestock need a fresh water source all year long, which makes chopping ice a necessity for watering cattle in winter.

For 43 years we’ve used a 320-acre mountain pasture for open range ranching our beef cattle, letting cows graze it in the fall after we bring them home from the range and wean their calves. They are usually able to stay there until November or late December—whenever the snow gets too deep for grazing. We installed several water troughs to collect spring water. These work nicely unless weather gets severely cold, and troughs freeze over. In cold weather, we’d hike up there every day to break the ice. The cows would follow us to the troughs and gang around to drink after we chopped out the ice. But we noticed that some cows never seemed interested in coming to water. We’d see them licking snow and worried that they were not getting enough water.

After seeing them do this for several weeks, we realize those particular cows were staying in good body condition and were not suffering from water shortage. They had learned how to eat snow and seemed to prefer periodic snow-licking, rather than tanking up on ice-cold water in the cold weather.

What solutions have you found to watering cattle in winter and making sure they get required moisture?

Originally published in the January/February 2009 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal.

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