Water is the most important nutrient for livestock. Water is needed for all metabolic processes essential for life, including growth and reproduction. The amount of water animals consume is affected by many physiological and environmental factors, one of which is the quality of available water. Many producers rely on ponds to provide water for livestock, but there is little data available on pond water quality in the Southern Great Plains. Therefore, a water quality survey was conducted by the Noble Research Institute to determine the effects of pond location and watershed grazing management on pond water quality in southern Oklahoma and north-central Texas.
Water samples were collected and analyzed from 83 farm ponds during the summer of 2009. Additional data were collected for each pond to determine if water quality was affected by grazing management, cattle access or location of the pond.
We found that grazing management (continuous versus rotational grazing) did not affect any of the 22 water quality parameters we measured. However, watersheds of most of the ponds we sampled were properly grazed. Overgrazing that results in poor forage stands within a watershed could contribute to erosion and nutrient transport, resulting in decreased water quality.
We also found that intensity of cattle access to the pond did not affect most measured parameters. However, cattle access did affect the level of suspended solids in pond water. Ponds that had no cattle access had significantly fewer suspended solids compared to ponds with unlimited cattle access. High levels of suspended solids have been shown to decrease water intake in cattle. This problem can be avoided by fencing off ponds to provide limited access points or using gravity-fed water troughs. Water troughs that are gravity-fed from ponds reduce the time cattle spend in ponds, which in turn can decrease fecal contamination and prevent cattle from stirring up sediments.
Our data showed that geographic location did affect water quality, but no ponds were determined to be unacceptable for use as livestock water. From south to north within our sampling area, sodium concentrations decreased, while magnesium and nitrate concentrations increased. In addition, sodium, calcium, magnesium, potassium and sulfur concentrations decreased from west to east. These findings could simply be a result of different soil types and rainfall patterns across the sampling area.
The ponds sampled were representative of a wide range of pond and watershed management systems in the south-central U.S., and most water quality parameters were within the acceptable range for livestock drinking water. However, testing your livestock water sources is the only way to know if they are acceptable for livestock use. All water sources should be tested annually at the beginning of summer to identify potential problems and assess the quality of each source.
Livestock should be provided with free-choice access to clean, quality water at all times. Contact a livestock consultant at the Noble Research Institute or your local extension agent for additional information about livestock water testing.