Above, cattle can graze in the back of this eight-acre paddock, where shade and water have been separated so manure is distributed across the paddock. A fertilizer truck will spread nutrients in a pasture, but cows can move them to a pond. In the photo below, a small amount of blue-green algae has blown to the corner of this pond.
What was the best investment you’ve ever made in your grazing system?” Ask experienced graziers that question and there’s a good chance their answers will have to do with their livestock water systems. But what are their reasons?
Some say water systems improve grazing distribution.
University of Missouri researchers measured how forage utilization in a pasture depended upon the distance from the water source. As one might expect, pasture was overgrazed and compacted close to the water source. However, about 500’ from it, utilization began to decline substantially. At that distance and beyond, pasture tended to be overgrown and underutilized.
Their work led to the rule of thumb that water sources should be placed within 400-600’ of all areas of the pasture. By designing a rotational grazing system using this rule, grazing efficiency can be maximized.
Some say water systems promote better nutrient distribution.
That’s certainly true and for the same reason grazing distribution is improved. If a herd grazes an area where water is more than 400-600’ away, animals often go back to water as a herd rather than as individuals. This causes them to “camp” or spend more time near the water source. Since manure doesn’t fall too far from the animal, higher nutrient loads quickly show up in that area.
Some say water systems help keep cattle out of creeks and nutrients in pastures.
Adding a water trough can reduce the time cattle spend in riparian zones by as much as 60%, University of Georgia research has shown. A similar Virginia study observed that, if given a choice between a trough and a creek, cattle would consume water from the trough more than 90% of the time. In fact, a number of studies have indicated that the simple addition of a water trough reduces the total amount of nutrients getting into streams by about two-thirds.
Some say water systems increase the quality and quantity of water animals consume.
These improvements have been associated with increased feed intake, better body condition scores and as much as a 10% increase in animal performance. Providing fresh, high-quality water also greatly reduces the risk of spreading leptospirosis and other diseases, as well as the amount of coliform bacteria animals ingest.
Some say water systems prevent animal poisonings.
This has been an especially prominent point of view of late, given that several recent cases of animal deaths have been linked to toxic algal blooms in stagnant farm ponds. Cyanobacteria, known to most as blue-green algae, often flourish if farm ponds or water sources have high concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus. When these ponds become stagnant after weeks of no rainfall to refresh them, blue-green algae can grow rapidly.
These algal blooms can grow so dense and “soupy,” any animals using the ponds can’t help but consume some of the algae. Blooms can also cause ponds to “turn over,” where the blue-green algae rapidly die out. As they begin to decompose, these organisms release toxins into the water that can irritate skin, damage the liver or affect the nervous system. Most producers wouldn’t give a second thought to using a pond as the water source. But perhaps they should.
Still, I would argue that the best reason a good water system is such a wise investment is not for any one of these advantages but because of all of them.