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How one farm optimally uses automatic watering for cattle

HAMILTON, Ohio — Water is an essential nutrient for livestock, and producers and educators often don’t talk about it enough, said Ohio State University beef specialist Steve Boyles, Ph.D.

The majority of the body’s composition is water and its consumption affects intake of all the other nutrients. “If livestock are deficient in water, we can’t expect to maximize intake and therefore, body tissue growth and/or milk production,” he said. “If you don’t have enough accessible water, you are going to see an impact on other nutrients.”

Bill and Bev Roe, owner of Pedro’s Angus, a Registered Black Angus seedstock operation, have thought about accessible water. Their Johne's risk assessment management plans call for the use of automatic watering systems rather than the open tub type. They have about 15 automatic water systems across their farm.

“The manufacturer recommends using units that are properly sized for your herd,” Bev Roe said. “They don't want you to install units that are oversized because for the geothermal to work, you need to be bringing in warm water often enough to keep them from freezing during winter.”

With 20-24 cattle in a paddock, the Roes started with the suggested 15-gallon trough, recommended for up to 50 head. The water always seemed to be dirty, she reported. When they noticed that the cattle seemed to be fighting over which would drink, the couple decided to install 43-gallon units; the bigger reservoir allowed two cows to drink at one time.

“This allows us to clean units only once a month,” Roe said. “In heavy use we will still check weekly to be sure there are no problems. Our herd continues to grow, and we have now started installing the next level, which has a 70-gallon capacity.”

Positioning is another consideration with water troughs, Boyles said. If the trough is in a corner, a narrow space or other inaccessible area, the dominant cattle will push out the more timid animals – that is the same effect as reduced water consumption.

“Also, when you have different species in a group, for instance, horses and cattle, those horses can always be bullies; you have to watch that,” he pointed out.

To avoid having manure in the water, consider having an elevated base around automatic waterers, Boyles said. Make the base wide enough so the cows can easily put their front legs on it but not their hind legs, when they are drinking. Animals will not normally place only their hind legs on this base and therefore, will not defecate in the water. Make the surface rough so that they will not slip.

Water should not be hot, nor in the form of ice, Boyles said. Drinkable water is usually between 40-65 degrees Fahrenheit. Steers that have access to cool drinking water will gain 0.3 to 0.4 pound more per day than those drinking warm water. Therefore, occasionally check waterers with heaters so as to detect a "runaway." Dip the thermometer into the water, but don’t allow it to rest on the bottom.

It took the Roes a while to realize baby calves could not drink out of automatic fountains during freezing weather, Roe added.

“Since you cannot pin the ball back for them to have access, otherwise the unit will freeze, the babies drank out of hoof prints or mud puddles,” she explained. “Now all babies have a creep pen area with fresh straw and water until they can drink from a fountain.”