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Sheep Water Requirements and Quality Testing

Written with contributions by Heidi Carroll, former SDSU Extension Livestock Stewardship Field Specialist & Beef Quality Assurance Coordinator.

Water intake is critical in ensuring animal health, performance and mitigating heat stress. In general, sheep will drink 1.0 to 1.5 gallons of water for every 4 pounds of dry matter (DM) consumed. Sheep need access to fresh, clean water with adequate space to ensure proper intake. Unclean or poor-quality water can negatively affect consumption, subsequently decreasing productivity, health and growth.

Understanding Water Requirements

Water requirements for ewes are listed in Table 1. Actual water consumption will vary with changes in temperature and humidity. Additionally, water requirement changes with stage of production, as pregnant, lactating and ewes raising multiples have the greatest water requirements. It is generally recommended that ewes raising twins or more require double the amount of water to support fetal growth and lactation (NRC, 2007).

Water is considered the most-important nutrient, because of the vast number of biological functions that rely on water. Growth, development and reproduction may be inhibited by not providing enough fluid water to a flock.

In range and pasture settings, water is sometimes overlooked when there is snow on the ground or lush spring grass, and, in some cases, these may be an adequate water source during very short periods of the year/growing season.

Table 1. Water requirements for ewes (gallons/day)

Ewe body weight
130 lb.
160 lb.
200 lb.
0.60 - 0.82
0.70 - 0.96
0.83 - 1.13
1.21 - 1.63
1.41 - 1.90
1.67 - 2.25

Calculated from NRC, 2007: Maintenance: 107-146 mL/kgBW0.75,
Pregnancy: 215-290 mL/kgBW0.75, Lactation: 359 mL/kgBW0.75

For grazing flocks, lush spring grasses are high in water content (~30% DM), but once the plant reaches full maturity, water content declines (~90% DM), and additional water sources for sheep become more essential. When choosing to use lush forages or snow as a sole water source to meet sheep water requirements, consider implementing additional proactive steps to ensure animal health. These could include monitoring a percentage of sheep for the basic vital signs during regular observations, measuring snow cover, or routine forage sampling/monitoring to know the DM percentage of the pasture and stay ahead of the water content decline. These options may be feasible for some operations, but this intensifies the labor hours in observation and may outweigh simply offering a continuous fresh water source. In a confinement setting, the type of feed or ration that a sheep is consuming plays a large role in water consumption. Feeds high in DM are going to increase water intake. Most mixed rations utilize dried feedstuffs (corn, alfalfa, etc.) high in percent DM. Shepherds should plan water sources intentionally on both pasture and confinement to ensure water requirements are met.

Providing Safe Access

Elevated waterers in sheep production facility.
Elevated waterers in lambing jugs using PVC pipe.

Sheep behavior also influences water intake. In an extensive system, sheep are likely to come to water all together. If a natural or dam water source is not provided, a tank should be large enough for numerous sheep to drink at a time and have enough volume to potentially water most of the flock at once. If deep, high-volume tanks (such as tire tanks) are used, it’s important to ensure that the sheep and lambs can reach the tank by building up the dirt around it or providing some kind of step. Additionally, sheep (especially lambs) have the potential to fall in a tank and are unable get out, so large rocks or cinderblocks in the bottom of the tank can help prevent drowning. In a more-intensive setting, it is recommended that there be one foot of available tank space per 15 to 25 head. Additionally, keeping the water opening high enough so that it cannot be defecated in promotes cleanliness. This is often a concern when shed lambing (a period when water requirement drastically increases) if using 5-gallon buckets as water sources. Regardless of production type, ensuring that fresh, clean water is freely available is the easiest way to encourage feed intake to promote the growth of lambs and production in mature sheep. During periods of high water consumption (i.e. during lactation or heat stress) it will be advantageous to provide additional water. Since sheep can drink several gallons a day, there should be adequate water pressure and tank size for those sheep to drink enough. Simply having water accessible is not the only consideration.

Heat Stress and Handling Considerations

During periods of high temperatures, greater attention to water quality and availability for our livestock is crucial for preventing and alleviating heat stress. For more information on heat stress, see Heat Stress in Small Ruminants. Range sheep may also require more water due to increased travel requirements to graze. Providing shade to animals, on pasture or in a drylot, can also impact water consumption and alleviate heat stress. Keep in mind that increased wool cover can also contribute to heat stress, so sheep with more wool may require more shade and water. Other factors that influence water intake are the amount of handling procedures that may need to be performed. Offering water immediately after shearing or processing allows animals to rehydrate if they were temporarily held off feed and/or water. Animals that are used for trials or handling demonstrations during events should also have continuous access to clean water to minimize stress.

Water Cleanliness and Quality

Sheep at a freshly cleaned watering station.
Drinking sources should be kept as clean as possible.

The best way to ensure that your flock is getting enough to drink is to provide free-choice, clean water. Furthermore, drinking sources (tanks, waterers, dams, etc.) should be kept as clean as possible. When able, disinfect tanks and waterers to further promote health and production of a flock. Sheep may drink out of puddles and other undesirable water sources when fresh, clean water is unavailable. Unclean water can harbor parasites and bacteria that interfere with the health of the flock.

Dry conditions can also lead to water quality concerns, particularly in ponds and stock dams. Declining water levels increase the concentration of soluble compounds (dissolved solids) in ground water, some of which are toxic to livestock. The primary concern is usually sulfates, since high sulfur leads to polioencephalomalacia (polio). However, poor water quality has also shown to affect livestock performance. Clear water doesn’t guarantee that the water is safe, but having your water tested does. Fortunately, SDSU Extension can test for total salts (sulfates) to help ensure that your water is suitable for livestock.

Takeaway Message

Of course, providing water is a commonsense practice. The takeaway message is to double check that your water source is fresh, clean and provides the amount that the sheep require. Water consumption is directly tied to feed consumption and is particularly critical to growing lambs and ewes in late gestation through lactation. Overall, simply providing quality water supports the health and productivity of the entire flock.