Water Quality and Cattle Weight Gain

There have been several studies performed that confirm what many might consider to be common sense.  Providing clean water for cattle will increase their water intake.  Drinking more water leads to increased feed intake, which results in greater weight gain.  This translates directly to higher revenues for the cattle rancher.  In addition, it’s not just weight gain, water quality will also affect the general health of livestock. An article by the Government of Canada states that “most factors affecting water quality are not fatal to livestock. Livestock may not show clinical signs of illness, but growth, lactation and reproduction may be affected, causing an economic loss to the producer” (Water Quality Impacts on Livestock, 2020).

A study conducted in Alberta and British Columbia that examined cattle which were provided water directly from a pond, pond water in a trough, or clean water provided in a trough (clean water is defined as water from a well or river) found:

  • 20% to 23% greater weight gains among yearling heifers provided clean water versus pond water (Williams et al., 2002)
  • 13% to 25% more weight gain for cows drinking clean water versus pond water (Williams et al., 2002)

Another study performed by the Western Beef Development Center concluded:

  • 9% more weight gain in steers drinking water that is aerated or coagulated (Lardner et al., 2005)

Common factors affecting water quality include:

  • Blue-green algae growth
  • Nitrates
  • Sulfates
  • Bacteria, viruses, and parasites
  • Total dissolved solids
  • Temperature
  • Alkalinity
  • Taste and odor

While some of these factors are inherent in the water source and may be present, even in well water, many are not.  In addition, concentrations of these substances may be considerably higher in a surface water pond than water pumped from a well at the same site.

A good rule of thumb is to have your water tested annually to identify and address any hidden water quality issues such as nitrates, sulfates, total dissolved solids, etc.

Regardless, all leading studies reach the same conclusion: providing fresh clean water to cattle will produce greater weight gains than providing those same cattle with water that looks, smells, tastes, and/or tests as poor quality water.



Tips to Increase Water Intake for Cattle

Algae, bacteria, viruses, and parasites

What do these all have in common?  They tend to develop and proliferate in hot, stagnant water.  Here are a few methods to help reduce this:

  • Eliminate dirty water sources – If possible, move away surface ponds where feces and urine regularly make their way into the water source.
  • Shade Water – Reducing or eliminating sun exposure will help slow algae and bacteria growth.  If watering from a trough, simply placing it under a shade tree can make a big difference.
  • Scrub, scrub, scrub!  – When watering from troughs and traditional automatic waterers that always have standing water, algae growth is an unavoidable reality.  To combat this, regular cleaning is the most common, safe, and reliable method to reduce growth of unwanted contaminants.
  • Frost Free Automatic Waterer – If there is never any standing, stagnant water, then algae and bacteria never have an opportunity to grow and pollute in the water source.  When using a frost free automatic waterer, cows will press a paddle in a bowl to fill the empty bowl with fresh, clean water.  When they are done drinking, all unused water drains out of the bowl.  Give there is no water in the unit when not in use, algae and bacteria never have a chance to grow.


Icy/Cold Water 

Providing water at temperatures between 40 and 65 degrees F will encourage maximum water intake.  When water is freezing cold or super-heated water intake will decrease.  In freezing temperatures, providing water that is above 40 degrees F can increase water consumption by 30% versus water that is icy cold (read here – breaking ice from troughs).

  • Insulate water source – If watering from a trough, simply insulating the water can have a huge positive impact.  There are endless DIY designs available online aimed at insulating water sources, particularly aimed at the traditional trough.  Many of the more popular designs primarily include building some type of structure surrounding the water trough that incorporates foam board.  This simple improvement can have a major impact on water temperatures.
  • Heat the water –  This is likely the most common solution to freezing water.  Clearly, almost everyone is familiar stock tank heaters.  These not only eliminate the chore of breaking ice, they can also raise the temperature above 40 degrees F.  While this is a very easy and effective method to combat cold, frozen water, this is also commonly the most expensive option as stock tank heaters have a tendency to use LOTS of electricity!
  • Heated Automatic Waterer – Installing a heated automatic waterer is also a very common solution to the issue of frozen water in the winter.  This will eliminate the chore of breaking ice and provide ice-free water all winter long.  While much more efficient and economical than a stock tank heater, you will still see an increase in electricity consumption (and costs) in the winter months.  How much will depend on a number of factors including the specific model of heated automatic waterer and the severity of the winter.
  • Frost Free Automatic Waterer – This model of automatic waterer is designed after the traditional yard hydrant, meaning that when a frost free automatic waterer is activated, the water comes up from below the frost line and fills the bowl with every use.  Because the water is coming up from below the frost line, the water will be roughly 45 to 50 degrees F all winter long.  This is without heating the water or paying for electricity.

Hot Water 

Ok, we made it through winter, now the easy season for watering, summer!  Right?  Well, kind of , but it’s not necessarily a ‘slam dunk’.  Once water reaches temperatures above 65 degrees F water intake will begin to decrease, and water above 85 degrees F, should be chilled.

  • Insulate water source – This not only has positive effects in the winter, but in the summer, too!  By following some of the same DIY methods of building an insulated structure around your water trough, much of the heat from the sun can be kept off of and out of the water.  This will not only keep the temperatures down but can reduce algae and bacteria growth.
  • Put ice in water – As temperatures rise, the water intake requirements increase for cattle.  If your water is above 65 degrees F, this will have a negative impact on water consumption.  If your water is above 85 degrees F, it would be wise to chill the water.  TLower the temperature by placing blocks of ice in the water source.
  • Shade water – This may be accomplished by default if you opt to insulation the water source, as mentioned above.  Alternatively, something as simple as locating your trough next to a barn or similar structure that provides shade part or all of the day can have a huge impact.  You can also build a dedicated structure around the water source with the explicit purpose of shading the water.  Other natural methods could include something as simple as moving the tank to underneath a tree that provides shade.
  • Frost Free Automatic Waterer –  Every time the paddle is depressed in an automatic frost free waterer, the water comes up from below the frost line.  This means that on a scorching 100+ degree day, frost free automatic waterers will provide water that is roughly about 50 degrees F because the water is coming up from below the ground.  This is one of the simplest and most cost effective methods to provide the correct temperature water year-round.


At Drinking Post, we like to use the common sense measurement of “If you won’t drinking your cattle’s water, why should they?”.  We would recommend you keep this in mind when evaluating your cattle’s water source and quality.

Let us know that you think in the comments below.  We’d love to learn about any tips or methods to help improve water quality for cattle that we may have overlooked.






Government of Canada. (2020). (rep.). Water quality impacts on livestock. Retrieved from https://agriculture.canada.ca/en/agriculture-and-environment/agriculture-and-water/livestock-watering/water-quality-impacts-livestock

Higgins, S. F., Agouridis, C. T., & Gumbert, A. A. (2008, July). Drinking Water Quality Guidelines for Cattle. Cooperative Extension Service. http://www2.ca.uky.edu/agcomm/pubs/id/id170/id170.pdf.

Lardner, B., Braul, L., Kirychuk, B. D., & Williams, W. D. (2005). (rep.). The effect of water quality on cattle performance on pasture. Australian Journal of Agricultural Research. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228658577_The_effect_of_water_quality_on_cattle_performance_on_pasture

Petersen, M. K., Muscha, J. M., Mulliniks, J. T., & Roberts, A. J. (2016). (rep.). Water temperature impacts water consumption by range cattle in winter. Journal of Animal Science. Retrieved from https://www.ars.usda.gov/ARSUserFiles/30300500/Publications/Uploaded1272012/2016%20JAS%2094%204297%E2%80%934306.pdf

Williams, W. D., Kenzie, O. R., McAllister, T. A., Colwell, D., Veira, D., Wilmshurst, J. F., Entz, T., & Olson, M. E. (2002). (rep.). Effects of water quality on cattle performance . Journal of Range Management . Retrieved from https://journals.uair.arizona.edu/index.php/jrm/article/viewFile/9741/9353


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