The Water of Life: Hydrating The Herd

Published on Wed, 06/19/2019 - 12:22pm

 The Water of Life: Hydrating The Herd.

 By Michael Cox

 Water water everywhere, nor any drop to drink,’ is a line from the 1798 poem titled; ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. The distressed mariner in question was surrounded by a vast ocean of salt water, and yet had no clean drinking water available to him. Fast forward 221 years, and unfortunately, too many dairy cows can somewhat relate to the thirsty sailor’s plight. With the hot summer’s days here to stay for the foreseeable future, priority must be given to providing clean, fresh drinking water in abundance to all stock, especially as heat-stress cows require even more water intake than normal (plus 30 percent).

Water is the basis of all life on Earth, and indeed milk contains 87 percent water. After fresh air, water is the most important input we must provide our dairy stock. Yet all too often, we take the supply and cleanliness of water for granted, until health issues or a sudden disruption to water supply occurs. For most dairymen, the status of their water supply is not known, and the most recent water test could date back to when the original wells were drilled. Updated test results should be part of a profitable dairy nutrition program.
The benefits of feed analysis are widely accepted, and it is recommended that water quality analysis aslo be incorporated into the total diet analysis, to ensure that water quality is not limiting intakes. Signs of dehydration such as poor ‘springiness’ in the skin and a sunken eye in the socket are typically symptoms of other health issues and rarely clinical dehydration. However, a simple water quality test can reassure the farm management team that this important input is meeting the required standards. Tests should be carried out at least quarterly, as weather patterns can have a big impact on groundwater quality. Tests will identify the levels of dissolved solids in the water, such as calcium, copper, iron, nitrate etc. For example, high nitrates levels in the water can be a seasonal issue if leeching occurs into the groundwater from excess or poorly timed nitrogen applications to crops in the catchment area. Building up a bank of test results can be beneficial to comparing results at different times of the year and predicting potential issues in the future.
Basic routine walks throughout the barn should include checks on water drinkers for cleanliness. Ideally, drinkers should be emptied and cleaned out daily. Stale or dirty water in drinkers will limit water intake, which can lead to a whole host of health issues further down the line, such as digestive upsets. The flow rate of water to drinkers should be sufficient to meet intakes even on the hottest of summer days. Cows only spend brief periods drinking water (only 30 minutes per day) in comparison to resting or feeding bouts. In grazing research, studies have found that if water is unavailable or flow rate too slow, the cows will fail to drink adequate water and will not return again to drink more water. This shows just how important adequate supply is to meeting demand. Walking distance to water can also play a role in consumption, with walks greater than 200 meters having a negative impact on water intake.
Multiple water drinkers should be available to cows to prevent bullying by dominant cows. Other impediments to water access should also be considered. Stray voltage for example, can be an issue on farms. Cows will tend to ‘lap up’ water with their tongue when stray voltage is affecting the water supply. Installing a drinker near the exit of the parlor can reduce demand for water when cows return to their stalls. Cows have an instinctive desire to drink water immediately after milking.
Research results from PennState University outlines the desired test results from a water quality sample. Total dissolved solids should be less than 1,000mg/L for cows. Higher levels of solids can affect the taste of water. Within the total dissolved solids is an array of other chemicals. Nitrates below 20mg/L, iron below 0.3mg/L, manganese below 0.05mg/L, chlorides below 250mg/L, sulfate below 1000mg/L and copper below 1.0mg/L are satisfactory levels of dissolved solids in the water. The secret to most profitable dairies lies in their ability to get the basics consistently right. Providing clean water that has been verified by an accurate test is one of the most basic components to successful dairying.