Producers should be mindful of water quality

Water quality continues to be a challenge as spring and summer months approach.

cow drinking water.
Producers should check water sources, such as surface water like this calf is drinking, to ensure there are no sulfates present. Photo taken March, 17, 2022 in Fargo, North Dakota.
Emily Beal / Agweek
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The repercussions of the 2021 drought are predicted to reign in the region once again as spring approaches. Adequate surface water may be difficult to source and could be sheltering toxins such as sulfates, according to Miranda Meehan.

“With the snow drought in the western part of the state and the need to replenish soil moisture in other parts of the state, we’re not sure that the runoff is going to be adequate to compensate for those quality concerns,” Meehan said.

Meehan is a North Dakota State University Extension livestock environmental stewardship specialist. Meehan said that last year over 1,500 water samples were collected in the state of North Dakota, with just over 20% of the screened samples coming back as having some level of toxicity for livestock.

In order for this percentage to go down, there needed to be excess runoff to replenish the surface water sources, but with the lack of snow in certain areas of the state and overall lack of moisture, it is not looking promising.

Before letting livestock out into those pasture areas, producers should test their water sources to ensure that they are not toxic. One tool that can be utilized is a hand-held TDS meter, which looks at the total amount of salts in the water, which can be toxic if it gets over 5,000 parts per million. Another tool that producers can utilize are sulfate test strips. Both tools are easy to use as well as affordable.


Once that threshold is crossed, health impacts can start to be seen in livestock.

“Within those salts, one of the components we look at is sulfates. We’ve seen a lot of issues with sulfates,” Meehan said.

Ingesting water with sulfates present can cause an array of health problems for livestock, according to Russ Daly, a professor and Extension veterinarian at South Dakota State University. He is also a state public health veterinarian.

“The most severe problems are neurological in nature. Animals will appear to be blind and uncoordinated, becoming so unsteady that they lie down and can’t get up on their own. Seizures can result, and some animals can die,” he said.

Daly advises supplementing copper to cattle that have been exposed to marginal water sources. But he stresses that avoiding the contaminated water all together is the best choice if possible.

Meehan also suggests using programs and resources that are available to help with water quality issues in the future:

“There are a lot of programs available to provide assistance. The state department of water resources still has funding available through their drought disaster livestock water supply program.”

Emily grew up on a small grains and goat farm in southern Ohio. 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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