The Best Source of Water for your Ruminant Animals

Importance of Feeding and Drinking Troughs for Ruminant Animals

Any source of water could be good for the ruminant animals provided that the water is not contaminated, that it is clean and also cool.

The water should also not be treated with any form of chemical as this do have negative effects on the performance of the ruminant animals. For this reason, stream or river water should be used with care as it may be difficult to know where the water is running out from.

Most of the time, the sources of this waters would have been contaminated, well just be aware that a good water must be odorless, colorless and tasteless and this factors can help you detect a good water source for your ruminant animals.

Water is a nutrient of extreme importance for animals and must be considered vital in any rearing phase. The increasing scarcity of this precious natural resource has concerned different segments of society in order to find solutions for rational and sustainable use of this nutrient.

Small ruminant animals, especially sheep and goats, have social and economic importance due to their great ability in adapting to adverse environmental conditions and using water efficiently. Thus, they might be a good alternative to mitigate the climate change effects and to generate foreign exchange and improving life condition in many places of the world.

The concept of water productivity for livestock production is relatively new and there are few studies in the world, especially in Brazil. More researches and new technologies for water use in livestock production are indispensable.

Monitoring water intake for livestock is mandatory for a farm manager. Ample supply of good quality water is necessary for maximum production. Consumption of water is determined by many factors and basic life functions require it.

Easy access to quality and plentiful water supplies may increase livestock productivity. Management of the water source can lead to more uniform distribution of nutrients excreted through livestock waste. Sound environmental practices may be enhanced by correct use of a water source.

Read Also: Ideal Feeds for Young and Adult Ruminant Animals

Water Effects on Ruminant Animals (Livestock) Performance

Limitation of water intake reduces animal performance quicker and more dramatically than any other nutrient deficiency. Water constitutes approximately 60 to 70 percent of an animal’s live weight and consuming water is more important than consuming food.

Domesticated animals can live about sixty days without food but only about seven days without water. Livestock should be given all the water they can drink because animals that do not drink enough water may suffer stress or dehydration.

Signs of dehydration or lack of water are tightening of the skin, loss of weight and drying of mucous membranes and eyes. Stress accompanying lack of water intake may need special considerations. Newly arrived animals may refuse water at first due to differences in palatability.

One should allow them to become accustomed to a new water supply by mixing water from old and new sources. If this is not possible, then intake should be monitored to be sure no signs of dehydration occur until animals show adjustment to the new water source.

Water Requirements Are Influenced by Physiological and Environmental Conditions

Consumption may vary greatly depending on the kind and size of the ruminant animal, physical state, level of activity, dry matter intake, quality of water, temperature of water and the environmental temperature.

The minimum requirement of water intake is reflected in the amount needed for body growth, fetal growth or lactation and that lost by excretion in urine, feces or perspiration.

Anything that influences these needs will influence the minimum requirement. Not all water must be provided as drinking water. Feeds that are high in moisture such as green chop, silage or pasture will provide part of the requirement, while feeds such as grain and hay offer very little moisture.

Water requirements are measured by voluntary up-take of water under a variety of conditions. Results imply that thirst is a result of need and animals drink to fill that need.

This is brought about by the increased electrolyte salt concentration in the body fluids which activate the thirst mechanism. Livestock may also increase water intake during hot months for its cooling effect. Table 1 shows estimates of daily consumption of water for various livestock groups. 

Table 1
  Estimated Gallons per Day
Cows, Dry and Bred 6-15
Cows, Nursing 11-18
Bulls 7-19
Growing Cattle 4-15
Dairy Cattle 15-30
Sheep and Goats 2-3
Horses 10-15

Water Functions

Water in the body performs many functions. Water helps to:

  1. eliminate waste products of digestion and metabolism,
  2. regulate blood osmotic pressure,
  3. produce milk and saliva,
  4. transport nutrients, hormone and other chemical messages within the body, and
  5. aid in temperature regulation affected by evaporation of water from the skin and respiratory tract.

Water Quality

Water quality, as well as quantity, may affect feed consumption and animal health since poor water quality will normally result in reduced water and feed consumption.

When evaluating water quality for livestock, consider whether livestock performance will be affected; whether water could serve as a carrier to spread diseases; and if the acceptability or safety of animal products for human consumption will be affected.

Most elements in water do not cause problems because they do not occur at high enough levels in soluble form. Cobalt, copper, iodide, iron, manganese and zinc may be toxic in excessive concentration but rarely are seen at levels high enough to cause problems.

Water quality problems affecting livestock are more commonly seen with high concentrations of minerals (excess salinity); high nitrogen content; bacterial contamination; heavy growths of toxic blue-green algae; or accidental spills of petroleum, pesticides or fertilizers.

Factors such as age, diet, condition and kind of animal determine tolerance of minerals in water. Decaying plant or animal protein, nitrogen fertilizer, silage juices and other factors may contribute to high levels of nitrogen forms in surface waters.

Read Also: How to control Ruminants from destroying Grasses where they graze

Water Access and Quality Improve Performance

Water access and quality can affect livestock performance. Farm managers with high producing dairy cows have reported substantial increases in milk output when cows have readily accessible water. Two to five additional pounds of milk per cow per day is not uncommon.

Pasture utilization can be greatly enhanced when animals do not have to travel far for water. A study from Missouri researched distances beef cattle traveled to water and how that affected grazing distribution and utilization of available forage.

The study results on the 160 acres tested showed that pasture carrying capacity could be increased an additional 14 percent by simply keeping livestock within 800 feet of water.

Table 2. Animal Weight Gain:
Dugout Versus Trough Water (per day)

Source: Willms, W.D., 1996. Agriculture and Agri-Food
Canada and Alberta Agriculture, Stavely, Alberta.
Gains in Pounds The Best Source of Water for your Ruminant Animals

Other research from Wyoming concluded similar results under rangeland conditions. Their results showed cattle do 77 percent of their grazing within 1,200 feet of their water source. In this study, approximately 65 percent of the pasture was more than 2,400 feet from water, but supported only 12 percent of the grazing usage.

A study from Alberta, Canada, implies water quality greatly affects the ability of cattle to produce pounds of gain. As Table 2 indicates, animals in the test all averaged .5 lbs per day or more gain as a result of drinking trough (clean) water versus dugout/pond (muddy) water where reduced or negative gains resulted.

This research continues with a focus on animal performance. While other tests have not confirmed the same amount of increase due to water quality, generally it’s accepted that stale, poor tasting water can cause a reduction in water consumption and this type of water could be a host for disease organisms.

To evaluate water quality in relationship to livestock health problems, it is imperative to obtain a thorough history, make accurate observations and submit suspect water samples to a qualified laboratory if problems occur.

Other Affects

Today’s concerns about water quality for not only cattle, but human consumption lead to questions about care being given to the water resource. Using a “watering system” where livestock do not have to have direct access to a stream or dugout/pond not only protects the water resource, but may also increase nutrient distribution throughout the field.

Through management of available water and tank placement, one can increase pasture productivity by promoting more uniform grazing. Uniform grazing results in uniform manure and urine distribution.

A grazing cow returns 79 percent of the nitrogen (N), 66 percent of the phosphorus (P) and 92 percent of the potassium (K) she eats to the pasture. If allowed, livestock will move nutrients from the pasture and deposit those nutrients in locations not beneficial to pasture growth. Examples are under shaded areas or around water tanks.

A study from Missouri tested P and K levels of distribution in relationship to water placement. Soil test levels were not altered when water was less then 500 feet from the farthest part of the pasture. When stock had to travel 1,100 feet to water, changes in soil P and K were much greater nearer the water.

Read Also: Where to source Ruminant Feeds

Water Requirements of Livestock (Ruminant Animals and Non-Ruminant Animals)

Providing enough quality water is essential for good livestock husbandry. Water makes up 80% of the blood, regulates body temperature and is vital for organ functions such as digestion, waste removal and the absorption of nutrients. Understanding daily livestock watering needs is key when designing a livestock watering system.

The daily water requirement of livestock varies significantly among animal species. The animal’s size and growth stage will have a strong influence on daily water intake. Consumption rates can be affected by environmental and management factors.

Air temperature, relative humidity and the level of animal exertion or production level are examples of these factors. The quality of the water, which includes temperature, salinity and impurities affecting taste and odour, will also have an effect.

The water content of the animal’s diet will influence its drinking habits. Feed with a relatively high moisture content decreases the quantity of drinking water required.

Given that drinking water needs are species-, farm- and management-specific, many producers today are opting to install water-metering equipment to obtain accurate measurements of water use. If medication is ever provided through the livestock’s watering system, the meter can be used to ensure proper dose rates.

1) Dairy Cattle

Milk is composed of nearly 87% water. An adequate supply of quality water for dairy cattle is extremely important. Farmers typically provide cows with free access to fresh water at all times.

The water requirements of lactating cows are closely related to milk production, moisture content in the feed and environmental factors such as air temperature and humidity. The cow’s peak water intake generally occurs during the hours of greatest feed intake.

Table 1 identifies water use by major growth stage of dairy animal and breaks down the estimated water consumption of a milking cow by its level of milk production.

Table 1. Water Consumption by Dairy Cattle (1), (2)
Dairy Cattle Type Level of
Milk Production
(kg milk/day)
Water Requirement Rangea
Average Typical Water Useb
Dairy calves (1-4 months) 4.9-13.2 9
Dairy heifers (5-24 months) 14.4-36.3 25
Milking cowsc 13.6 68-83 115
Milking cowsc 22.7 87-102 115
Milking cowsc 36.3 114-136 115
Milking cowsc 45.5 132-155 115
Dry cowsd 34-49 41

a A result of the animals’ environment and management.
b Typical consumption over a year on a daily basis under average agricultural conditions in Ontario.
c The average milk production in 2006 for a Holstein dairy cow in Ontario was 33 kg/day.
d Approximately 15% of the milking-age cows present on a dairy farm could be considered “dry.”

2) Beef Cattle

Few studies have been undertaken to fully document water use by beef animals. Those that have been completed suggest that the water requirement of beef cattle is closely tied to whether the animals are lactating, the moisture content of their feed ration and environmental factors such as air temperature and relative humidity.

Grazing trials have demonstrated that weight gains of pastured beef animals are higher if a water supply is provided for the cattle in the grazing area, even though the animals are receiving a lot of water from their diet.

Table 2 provides average daily water requirements of beef cattle.

Table 2. Water Consumption by Beef Cattle (3)
Beef Cattle Type Weight Range
Water Requirement Rangea
Typical Water Useb (L/day)
Feedlot cattle: Backgrounder 181-364 (400-800 lb) 15-40 25
Feedlot cattle: Short keep 364-636 (800-1,400 lb) 27-55 41
Lactating cows with calves 43-67 55
Dry cows, bred heifers & bulls 22-54 38

a A result of the animals’ environment and management.
b Typical consumption over a year on a daily basis under average agricultural conditions in Ontario.

Read Also: Security and Bio-Security Measures in a Ruminant Farm

3) Swine

The housing method, growth stage and feeding method used affect the drinking water requirements of pigs. Table 3 gives a breakdown of drinking water consumption by weight range or level of maturity.

Table 3. Water Consumption by Swine (4)
Swine Type Weight Range
Water Requirement Rangea
Average Typical Water Useb
Weaner 7-22 1.0-3.2 2.0
Feeder pig 23-36 3.2-4.5 4.5
Feeder pig 36-70 4.5-7.3 4.5
Feeder pig 70-110 7.3-10 9
Gestating sow/boar 13.6-17.2 15
Lactating sowc 18.1-22.7 20

a A result of the animals’ environment and management.
b Typical consumption over a year on a daily basis under average agricultural conditions in Ontario.
c Includes unweaned piglets.

The introduction of three-site production and all-in/all-out facilities has altered the water usage patterns and peak usage requirements of swine growout facilities. Pigs in the growing phase are often grouped in segregated rooms or entire barns by age.

They are kept in this facility until the target weight is reached by the majority of animals, when the room or barn is emptied and then restocked.

Consider, for example, that five hundred 23-kg (50-lb) pigs at the start of a growout cycle will each consume 4.5 L/day. By the end of the growout cycle, the water requirements of these same 500 pigs, now weighing 100 kg (220 lb), will have doubled to 9 L/day each. The water system for these pigs must be designed for the higher value.

The use of wet/dry feeders and liquid feeding systems has reduced the volume of drinking water required because of the higher moisture content of the feed ration and the reduction in spillage of water from these systems. Swine system specialists have estimated that, prior to 1990, approximately 50% of the water supplied to a hog pen in a day was lost as spillage.

Today, more efficient feeding systems have cut these losses significantly. Producers have also opted to replace the nipple drinkers commonly used as a water source in the pen with water bowl-type drinkers.

4) Horses

Horses typically consume 2-3 kg of water per kilogram of dry feed. They drink more in hot weather and while doing heavy work. See Table 4.

Table 4. Water Consumption by Horses (5), (6)
Frame size
Water Requirement Rangea
Average Water Useb
Small (500 lb) 13-20 16.5
Medium (1,000 lb) 26-39 32.5
Large (1,500 lb) 39-59 49

a A result of the animals’ environment and management.
b Typical consumption over a year on a daily basis under average agricultural conditions in Ontario.

5) Sheep

Grazing sheep, particularly in the cooler seasons of the year, can require relatively little additional water beyond what they receive through forage. Hot, drier weather, however, will result in increased water intake. Table 5 provides an estimate of water consumed daily by different categories of sheep.

Table 5. Water Consumption by Sheep(7)
Animal Type Weight Range
Water Requirement Rangea
Average Typical Water Useb
Feeder lamb 27-50 3.6-5.2 4.4
Gestating meat ewe/ram 80 4.0-6.5 5.25
Lactating meat ewe plus unweaned offspring 80+ 9.0-10.5 10
Gestating dairy ewe/ram 90 4.4-7.1 5.75
Lactating dairy ewe 90 9.4-11.4 10.4

a A result of the animals’ environment and management.
b Typical consumption over a year on a daily basis under average agricultural conditions in Ontario.

6) Chickens

The feed requirements of growing poultry are directly related to bird weight. Water requirements are related to feed consumption and to the air temperature. Over half of the water intake of poultry is obtained from the feed. Automatic watering equipment ensures poultry have free access to water at all times.

Once air temperatures exceed 30°C or (87°F), the expected water consumption can increase by 50% above normal consumption rates. Poultry are unable to sweat as a means of regulating body temperature.

Their method of heat control involves increasing the respiratory rate (panting) to expel surplus heat, which results in the release of large amounts of moisture from the bird that must be replaced or the bird will become dehydrated.

Table 6 shows an estimate of the daily water consumption of 1,000 broiler chickens at different stages of growth. It also illustrates the effect air temperature can have on their water consumption rates. Use Table 6 to design water systems for broilers.

Table 7 shows water consumption by season and can be used for estimating average total annual water requirement for broilers.

Table 6. Water Consumption of Broiler Chickens by Age(8)
Chicken Broiler Age (weeks) Water Requirement
(L/1,000 birds/day)
21°C 32°C
1-4 50-260 50-415
5-8 345-470 550-770


Table 7. Water Consumption of Broiler Chickens by Season (8)
Season Average Typical Water Usea(L/1,000 birds/day)
Winter, fall, spring 280
Summer 450

a Typical consumption over a year on a daily basis under average agricultural conditions in Ontario.

Table 8 presents an estimate of daily water consumption by other common classes of chickens. Again, temperatures have a major influence on the water consumption rate expected from these other poultry classes.

Egg production level will also affect the water consumption of laying hens. It has been estimated that laying hens will drink about 4 kg of water per dozen eggs produced.

Table 8. Water Consumption by Chicken Classes Other Than Broilers (9)
Chicken Type Weight Range
Water Requirement Rangea
(L/1,000 birds/day)
Average Typical Water Useb
(L/1,000 birds/day)
Laying hens 1.6-1.9 180-320 250
Pullets 0.05-1.5 30-180 105
Broiler breeders 3.0-3.5 180-320 250

a A result of the animals’ environment and management.
b Typical consumption over a year on a daily basis under average agricultural conditions in Ontario.

Historically, most producers used the bell-style watering system – a circular trough with a gravity-fed reservoir that may be connected to a water line – to provide water to growing birds.

Advances in poultry watering equipment in recent years have introduced a nipple-style watering device that contributes to drinker hygiene and reduces water spillage if properly managed.

For cage-reared poultry, such as laying hens, there have been recent advancements to reduce water wastage through the use of a cup water device or by installing a trough under the water nipples.

7) Turkeys

Drinking water requirements of turkeys are shown in Table 9 and Table 10. Use Table 9 for designing water system capacity and Table 10 for estimating average total annual consumption.

Again, water consumption is significantly influenced by the bird’s size and the air temperature it is exposed to. The age of turkeys on a farm will depend heavily on market factors. Typically, however, meat turkeys can be classified as follows:

  • broiler turkeys (hens) – up to 11 weeks of age
  • heavy hens – up to 16 weeks of age
  • turkey toms – up to 20 weeks of age

Water consumption of breeding hens kept for egg production is similar to that of heavy hens at 16 weeks.

Table 9. Water Consumption of Turkey by Age (10)
Turkey Age (weeks) Water Requirementa
(L/1,000 birds/day)
10°C-21°C 27°C-35°C
1-7 38-327 38-448
8-14 403-737 508-1,063
15-21 747-795 1,077-1,139

a Includes spillage losses (typically 2% or less of total consumption).

Table 10. Water Consumption of Turkey by Type
Turkey type Average Typical Water Usea
(L/1,000 birds/day)
Fall/Winter/Spring Summer
Broiler turkey 296 402
Heavy hens 431 600
Turkey toms 513 723

a Typical consumption over a year on a daily basis under average agricultural conditions in Ontario.

Read Also: Ideal Distance between a Ruminant Farm and Residential Areas

8) Rabbits, Mink and Alternate Livestock

Limited observed and published data are available for less common livestock. The numbers presented in Table 11 are general numbers based on estimates provided by producers and extension specialists who work with these alternate livestock.

As with other animals, the key factors affecting water intake are likely to be feed intake, feed composition, environmental temperature, animal size and activity.

The most important factor affecting rabbits’ water intake is environmental temperature. They will drink twice as much water during hot summer weather (30°C) as they will during more temperate seasons (10°C). Rabbits on high-fibre or high-protein diets will tend to drink more water than rabbits on low-fibre or low-protein rations.

The high-fibre diets require extra water to moisten the feed and to maintain adequate fluid level in the digestive tract. High-protein rations increase the water requirement, because nitrogen from the excess protein is excreted in the urine as urea.

The kidney has a limited capacity to concentrate excretory byproducts in the urine, so the more urea excreted by the animal, the more water there is in the urine.

Similar variables affect a mink’s water requirements. Mink are traditionally fed a wet diet (65%-75% water), which will provide 80%-85% of the mink’s daily water requirements. The remaining water needs must be met by drinking water.

Table 11. Water Consumption – Other Livestock(11), (12)
Animal Type Weight Range
Estimated Typical Water Usea
Rabbit – gestating doe 4.5 kg 0.35
Rabbit – doe (with litter), prior to weaning 8.5 kgb 1.02
Rabbit – 6-wk fryers 1.0 kg 0.30
Rabbit 12-wk fryers 2.3 kg 0.64
Mink breeders – males 3.0 kg 0.39
Mink breeders – females 1.5 kg 0.29
Growing mink – males 2.0 kg 0.26
Growing mink – females 1.0 kg 0.19

a Typical consumption over a year on a daily basis under average agricultural conditions in Ontario.
b Total weight: 4.5 kg for doe plus 8 kits @ 0.5 kg

9) Water Quality

While the focus of this Factsheet is on the quantity of water consumed by livestock, water quality is also important to consider as it can have an impact on the volume of water consumed.

Foul odours or tastes, for example, may discourage animals from drinking. Depending on the cause, poor water quality can affect herd health, possibly leading to animal death and economic loss to the producer.

Assess water quality at both the point of use and the source. The contamination of watering devices by dust, spilled feed and fecal matter can lead to the growth of slime. Eventually slime organisms die and decay, creating foul odour and/or tastes.

Typically, poultry is more sensitive to the taste and mineral content of the water than other livestock types. Water treatment systems are increasingly being used in poultry barns.

The treatments normally focus on overcoming many problems with iron or minerals in the source water, killing bacteria and eliminating slime/scale from forming in the water lines and on the waterer. If chlorine is added during treatment, the target residual chlorine level in the delivery system is between 3-5 parts per million.

The tolerance to minerals (total salts) in water supplies varies by animal species, with poultry being most sensitive, hogs moderately sensitive and ruminant animals least sensitive. In general, a total soluble salt content of less than 1,000 mg/L is considered a low level of salinity suitable for all types of livestock.

Salt contents between 1,000 mg/L and 3,000 mg/L are satisfactory for all types of livestock but may cause watery droppings in poultry or diarrhea in livestock not accustomed to this salt level.

Salt levels above 3,000 mg/L are not recommended for poultry and are more likely to result in cases of livestock refusal. Salt levels above 5,000 mg/L are not recommended for lactating animals. Avoid levels above 7,000 mg/L for all livestock.

Read Also: Importance of a Sick Bay in a Ruminant House

The importance of water quality in livestock (Ruminant Animals) production

Water is the most essential nutrient for livestock production (Ruminant animals) and is needed for numerous processes, such as the regulation of body temperature, growth, digestion, reproduction, metabolism, lubrication of joints, excretion, eyesight, etc. Water is also an excellent solvent for amino acids, minerals, glucose, vitamins, and metabolic waste.

Water requirements are influenced by a number of factors, including gestation, lactation, rate and composition of gain, type of diet, activity, environmental temperature, and feed intake.

The intake of water from feeds plus the ad libitum consumption of free water is the equivalent of the water requirements in livestock. Ad libitum access to clean, fresh water is essential to maintaining feed intake in livestock.

According to the NRC (1996), a wintering 1100 pound gestating cow needs to consume between 6 gallons at 40’F and 9 gallons at 70’F of water per day and the requirements double for a lactating cow. However, the requirements do not take in to account the distance cows must travel to the water source.

The water provided to livestock needs to be good quality to maintain production. Water quality may be altered by contaminants, such as mineral salts, toxins, heavy metals, microbial loads, debris, and agricultural practices. Most contaminants will reduce water intake, which results in a reduction in feed intake and a loss of production.

However, if the water or feed contains increased salt, water intake will increase as the animal attempts to eliminate the excess sodium. Total dissolved solids (TDS) are measured to determine the saltiness of the water. Table 1 describes the recommendations and effects of increasing concentrations of TDS in the water.

High concentrations of sulfate may also cause a reduction in copper availability in livestock, which can lead to copper deficiency. Producers should be aware of water sulfate concentrations when feeding high sulfur feedstuffs, such as distillers grains or corn gluten feed, and feeds containing high concentrations of molybdenum.  If livestock are consuming high sulfate water, additional copper supplementation may need to be considered.

Similar to nitrates in forages, water with high nitrate concentrations can also be toxic. Nitrate from the water is converted to nitrite within the rumen, which can be toxic by decreasing the oxygen-carrying capacity of hemoglobin. Producers should especially be aware of water nitrate concentrations when feeding forages with high nitrate concentrations.

Other contaminants include bacteria, which can be toxic to livestock. High bacteria concentrations can cause infertility, foot rot, low milk production, and other reproductive problems.

Stagnant water that is contaminated with manure and other contaminants can develop blue-green algae, which may be toxic to livestock. It is crucial to maintain a clean, fresh water supply to maintain health and performance of livestock.

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