Drought may be impacting livestock's water quality

Due to the region's dry conditions and drought-like weather, livestock's water quality may be impacted.

Total dissolved solids and an increase level of sulfates can be toxic to livestock. (Contributed photo)

With the region experiencing a drought since last year, producers should be mindful of how the dry weather and lack of precipitation can hurt their livestock’s water quality.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor , much of the region is considered either abnormally dry or in some degree of drought, including most or all of North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska and Iowa.

“In 2020, we had a really dry fall. We were seeing a decrease in availability of surface water, and surface water itself decreases the concentrations of salt,” said Miranda Meehan, North Dakota State University Extension livestock environmental stewardship specialist.

Due to the low surface waters, the water itself becomes much more concentrated due to the minerals not being able to be evaporated with the water.

“Those particles don’t leave as the water leaves, so they become more concentrated. Just like if you would leave a glass of salt water on the counter, some of the water will evaporate, but you will still have the same amount of salt in the water,” Meehan said.


Meehan also explained that she has been seeing higher levels of total dissolved solids, also known as TDS, and higher levels of sulfates as well. Both of them can be toxic, if the levels reach a high enough level.

For producers, monitoring those surface water areas’ quality is key.

“We recommend the use of hand-held TDS meters as a quick method to screen water samples,” Meehan said. “If the screening indicates the TDS is greater than 4,500 ppm, submit a sample to a lab for additional analysis.”

An alternative producers can use to screen water samples are sulfate testing strips.

Producers should also keep an eye out for cyanobacteria blooms, as they are much more prevalent in drought conditions. These blooms produce toxins that can harm livestock and wildlife, as well as humans.

Meehan explained the best form of monitoring for the blooms is visually. However, due to the blooms' ability to grow rapidly, it can be difficult to check all the water locations frequently enough. Some producers opt to install cameras to closely monitor water locations and ensure the water’s quality.

If blooms are detected, it is imperative that the livestock be removed from the area with the contaminated water source as soon as possible. Producers should then take a sample of the water and submit it for testing. The water will be analyzed for several toxins.

Meehan stresses the importance of having a plan in place when dealing with drought conditions, especially as the region begins to head into warmer months.


“As you develop your drought plan, it is critical to include strategies to ensure livestock have adequate, good-quality water,” Meehan said.

Emily grew up on a corn, soybean and wheat farm in southern Ohio where her family also raises goats. After graduating from The Ohio State University, she moved to Fargo, North Dakota to pursue a career in ag journalism with Agweek. She enjoys reporting on livestock and local agricultural businesses.
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