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Updated: Jul 7, 2020


Water is the second most essential nutrient after oxygen, yet highly underrated. There is a direct positive relationship between water intake and feed intake, and we know there is a direct positive relationship with feeding animals and getting growth and/or production gains.

Having free choice water is the first step and not something to be looked past. Newborn animals, animals on pasture and every other type of system management and stage of development requires free choice water.

Once the water is provided the next thing to check is quality and quantity, because if either is negative, we may not be able to meet requirements. A high producing lactating dairy cow has the greatest water requirement of all land-based mammals, which is a great indication of how important this component of their diet and management is.

According to Dr. Beede of Michigan State University, there are two questions that should be examined.

  1. Is water intake where it should be?

  2. Is there anything that may affect intake or anti-quality factors that will impact normal metabolic or physiological function.

There are many things that can impact water intake, such as ambient temperature and humidity, physiological status of the animal, water quality, placement and management of the water trough, smell and taste of the water, colour and turbidity, headspace at watering point etc.

Not only do animals require water to live and support dry matter intake, but it also has a role in digestion (therefore getting nutrients and energy from feed) and the circulation of those nutrients through the body and to excrete the waste products. Milk is 87% water and is therefore the most important dietary nutrient.

The Trough

Some studies have identified that colour is not a big factor, however they may prefer larger troughs at the optimal height (not too low) and potentially round PVC over concrete squares, but we aren’t going to change these across an entire farm. The most important aspect of selecting a trough is achieving high flow, great location and ability to clean regularly.

Placement of a trough outside of a paddock >150m can result in decreased dry matter intake and water intake = decreased production. This is particularly important to the subordinate cows, the dominant cows will often do well in any scenario however the subordinate cows, the new cows and heifers will be exposed to greater challenges. Water access at the dairy yards is one of the greatest ways to increase water intake, they will actively choose to drink majority of their water here.

Impacting the Senses

Taste and smell, the organoleptic properties, have a greater impact on dairy cows than other production animals and they can be quite sensitive. If the water has a smell or unsatisfying taste, they may not drink to the extent they require. If there is visible slime or algae growth, it is not an appetising cocktail enticing them to drink.

What is Living in the Water

Generally microorganisms are of not much concern unless they are in very high amounts, BUT algal blooms have been shown to cause health problems resulting in decreased production, health and liver failure, depending on the level of toxicity and amount of algae ingested.

Anti-quality Factors

Anti-quality factors are substances in excess that may cause issues with water intake or the health of the cow through interrupting metabolic processes. A common factor often considered is TDS – Total Dissolved Solids, the sum of all inorganic matter in the water including salinity. This value is an important and can impact water intake and quality, however it does not provide information on what specific compounds are high and these may or may not have any impact on production.

Water Quality Guidelines for Dairy Cattle

First Steps

  1. Clean troughs regularly – frequently used troughs daily to 2x weekly, other troughs prior to use.

  2. Make sure pipe is underground to keep water cool – hot water can reduce intake, additionally if troughs heat up in sun and will burn animals.

  3. Sufficient space around troughs, high flow and maintaining ground condition around troughs for easy access and avoid water pools, deep mud and rocks around troughs that may reduce number of visitations to water.

At the end of the day, it is a good idea to test your water and have an understanding of what you are working with. Water intake is number one, always have clean drinking water for stock including troughs along laneways, at the dairy, feed pad, paddock and calf pens.

Please feel free to give one of our TRAC Experts a call and discuss any questions you may have.

The information provided in this report are in no way a recommendation and is provided in good faith based on current information at the time of print. TRAC cannot be held responsible for any errors or omissions resulting from information provided. Due to environmental conditions and managerial practices TRAC cannot be held responsible for any damage, loss or injury that may be incurred.


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Tom Thorn

0427 243 319

Mark Facy

0437 243 320

Owen Rees

0429 437 823

Mikaela Baker

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