Sponsored By
Dakota Farmer

Conditions set stage for poor water quality

Lack of precipitation heightens the need to test quality of water in ponds, dugouts and dams before livestock graze land.

Kevin Schulz

May 13, 2021

4 Min Read
Pasture with pond
TEST EARLY: A dry fall and mild winter didn’t allow for pasture surface waters to be replenished with fresh water, so it is recommended that ranchers test the quality of water for their livestock before turning them loose in the pasture. Farm Progress

If drought conditions linger, water’s value as a resource will be even further reinforced. The quantity of water is not only critical, but also its quality, especially for livestock, says cow-calf specialist Robin Salverson.

Salverson, who works at the South Dakota State University Extension regional center in Lemmon, says surface water supplies this spring in South Dakota may be more at risk for quality issues than in years past. “Last fall kind of set us up for that situation, along with the winter,” she says. “We were dry last fall, and then the winter we had limited snow, which didn’t flush out any of our surface waters.”

That sets the stage for poor water quality, a situation that may only get worse if drought conditions persist. Water supplies are not being replenished, and the water that is there is disappearing due to evaporation exacerbated by the spring winds.

Water quality can influence production in livestock, as she says you may notice calves coming off the grass at the end of the year lighter weight than anticipated. Poor-quality water consumed during breeding season can also have reproductive implications, such as “more opens or they get bred later in the calving season,” she says. In extreme cases, death may occur.

Test early

Symptoms can come on quickly, so Salverson urges ranchers to sample and test water sources that will be available to livestock before turning the animals loose for summer grazing. Water can be tested in a few ways:

  • Laboratories. There are laboratories that will provide a complete analysis of water samples, for which ranchers will need to collect, package and send samples away.

  • Extension. Considering that symptoms can appear in a day or two, Salverson recommends bringing water samples to a regional or county Extension office where personnel should be able to perform a quick electrical conductivity test free of charge.

  • Veterinarians. She also suggests veterinarians or nutritionists may offer water testing as a service to clients.

  • EC meters. Ranchers also have the option of buying their own electrical conductivity meters, which start at around $60.

An EC quick test detects total dissolved solids, and Salverson says levels above 3,000 parts per million are cause for concern and should trigger further water testing. Ranchers witnessing cattle experiencing “blind staggers” may be seeing the symptoms of polio, brought on by high levels of sulfur in the water, and meter readings over 3,500 ppm may provide a good indicator.

Salverson says polio in livestock has become common in western South Dakota over the past several years. “If you’ve ever seen animals out in your pasture or in a neighbor’s pasture starting to look like they have blind staggers, they start to kind of circle, or you may see them off on their own, if you don’t catch them soon enough, they will actually go down and start flailing,” she says. If given the opportunity, you may see an animal with polio pressing their head against a railroad tie or fence post, “to try to relieve pressure off their brain.”

If caught early, Salverson says effects of polio are reversable, stressing the importance of regularly observing your herd as well as reaching out to your veterinarian to aid in diagnosis. While Salverson encourages ranchers to test drinking water sources early, they also need to be aware that blue-green algae can become a problem later in summer, and ranchers may not be aware of its presence until animals start dying.

One good thing is that blue-green algae usually disappears “fairly quickly and the toxin no longer has an effect on your animals, but it is something else that you need to be aware of this summer,” she says.

Solutions to poor-quality water

Ranchers faced with poor quality water do have options, such as moving livestock to a different pasture after checking the water quality there. Salverson says it’s important to check every source of water for purity, as it can vary from water hole to water hole, even within the same pasture. She has also heard of ranchers bringing in water to either create a new water source or to dilute a problematic existing water source.

Even though tests are the best way to indicate water quality, Salverson says observing animal behavior can also indicate something is amiss. “If your cows are trying to go back to where they came from, it’s a good sign your water is bad,” she says. “If your animals are trying to get through the gates or through the fences, and just trying to get back to where they were, it a good indication the water’s not good.”

Contrary to what one might think, Salverson says typically the clearer the water appears, the poorer the quality. “Usually because if it’s nice and clear, that means frogs and fish and bugs can’t live in it,” she says, “because of the total salts that are in there. Typically, the murkier the water is probably better than clearer water.”

Even though the current forecast points to a droughty summer, Salverson stresses poor-quality water is not isolated to only dry years. “Water is obviously the most important nutrient to an animal, but it’s one that we rarely are concerned about,” she says, “but we should be.”

About the Author(s)

Kevin Schulz

Editor, The Farmer

Kevin Schulz joined The Farmer as editor in January of 2023, after spending two years as senior staff writer for Dakota Farmer and Nebraska Farmer magazines. Prior to joining these two magazines, he spent six years in a similar capacity with National Hog Farmer. Prior to joining National Hog Farmer, Schulz spent a long career as the editor of The Land magazine, an agricultural-rural life publication based in Mankato, Minn.

During his tenure at The Land, the publication grew from covering 55 Minnesota counties to encompassing the entire state, as well as 30 counties in northern Iowa. Covering all facets of Minnesota and Iowa agriculture, Schulz was able to stay close to his roots as a southern Minnesota farm boy raised on a corn, soybean and hog finishing farm.

One particular area where he stayed close to his roots is working with the FFA organization.

Covering the FFA programs stayed near and dear to his heart, and he has been recognized for such coverage over the years. He has received the Minnesota FFA Communicator of the Year award, was honored with the Minnesota Honorary FFA Degree in 2014 and inducted into the Minnesota FFA Hall of Fame in 2018.

Schulz attended South Dakota State University, majoring in agricultural journalism. He was also a member of Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity and now belongs to its alumni organization.

His family continues to live on a southern Minnesota farm near where he grew up. He and his wife, Carol, have raised two daughters: Kristi, a 2014 University of Minnesota graduate who is married to Eric Van Otterloo and teaches at Mankato (Minn.) East High School, and Haley, a 2018 graduate of University of Wisconsin-River Falls. She is married to John Peake and teaches in Hayward, Wis. 

When not covering the agriculture industry on behalf of The Farmer's readers, Schulz enjoys spending time traveling with family, making it a quest to reach all 50 states — 47 so far — and three countries. He also enjoys reading, music, photography, playing basketball, and enjoying nature and campfires with friends and family.

[email protected]

Subscribe to receive top agriculture news
Be informed daily with these free e-newsletters

You May Also Like