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Water Quality

Small group of cattle near a water tank in a rangeland area.
Courtesy: USDA NRCS South Dakota

While producers have long acknowledged that access to water makes the difference between a profitable or unsuccessful operation, they are beginning to understand that water quality may be as important as water quantity. Studies have found that:

  • Cattle with access to clean water spend more time grazing and less time resting than those drinking from a pond.
  • Calves gain up to a quarter pound more per day when cows have access to clean water.
  • Cattle with access to clean water in tanks gain as much as a half-pound more per day than do cattle drinking lower quality water from dugouts or ponds.

Because water quality can affect production, it is important to consider water quality as well as quantity when planning a grazing system. Cattle with free access to water sources can quickly deteriorate the water quality through defecation, urination, bottom disturbance and erosion of banks. To provide the herd with access to clean water consider:

  • Pumping water from streams, lakes and ponds into tanks.
  • Using pipelines to make water available at several places in the pasture.

Providing an adequate supply of clean water has additional benefits. Studies have shown that cattle spend 77% of their time grazing within 1,200 feet of their water source. Providing several sources of water scattered throughout the pasture promotes more-uniform grazing and distribution of manure which:

  • Improves forage production.
  • Increases the plant and wildlife diversity.
  • Decreases the amount of sediment, nutrients and bacteria that wash into dams, dugouts and streams.
  • Ensures proper grazing and residual height of the grass, which is important for overall soil health, including future production, water infiltration and grassland diversity.

The Healthy Grasslands article series is provided by the South Dakota Grassland Coalition in partnership with SDSU Extension. Contributing editors: Alexander J. Smart, Peter J. Bauman and Joshua Lefers. © South Dakota Grassland Coalition 2017. For more information, view the full publication or visit the South Dakota Grassland Coalition website.