When it comes to keeping livestock, the water supply of your land base can be a major limiting factor. Therefore, before you invest any money in farm animals, it is crucial that you take stock of your water situation first.
Let’s start by examining the water resources you have available:
- What water sources do you have? Wells? Springs? Creeks? Ponds? Cisterns?
- How much flow or capacity does each water source provide?
- How reliable is each source, especially in a drought?
You might want to consider writing out a water source inventory and keeping it in a handy place for reference.
As you write down the different sources of water available to you, also make a note of the general quality of the water. There is a saying that if you wouldn’t drink it, you shouldn’t make your animals drink it, either, but this is not necessarily always either true or practical. While you obviously want to avoid contamination as much as possible, and you should always strive to be a good steward of the water on your property, the importance of quality varies a great deal with the type of livestock you are raising. For dairy animals, clean water is an absolute must for quality milk production. Sheep also need reasonably clean water, or they won’t drink it. Chickens and beef cattle, on the other hand, seem to care very little about the state their drinking water is in. Yes, you should definitely give your livestock water that’s as clean and fresh as possible. But fit for human consumption? That may be a little over the top in most cases.
Water quality problems that are not acceptable include:
- Unpleasant odors.
- A pH below 5.5 or above 8.5.
- Excessive salinity.
- Fecal contamination.
- Bacterial contamination
- Blue-green algae.
- High nitrate levels.
- High sulfate levels.
- Heavy metal contamination.
If there is reason to suspect that your water sources are less than ideal, some testing and remedial action is in order.
While you’re already thinking about water quality, you may also want to take a moment to think about extremes of temperature. Your animals will need cool water in the summer and unfrozen water in the winter. How will you get it to them?
Now that you know what you’ve got to work with, you need to find out how much water your chosen animals will drink in a day. Will your water resources limit the number of livestock you can keep? Bear in mind that there are many variables at play here. For example, a lactating cow will drink more than a steer, a milk goat more than a meat goat, and a European sheep more than a Navajo sheep, especially in summer.
For a starting point, consider the following estimates of daily water consumption per head:
- Calves: 5 gals/day.
- Stocker calves: 15.
- Dry cows and heifers: 15.
- Cow/calf pairs: 20.
- Bulls: 20.
- Finishing cattle: 25.
- Calves: 5 gals/day.
- Heifers: 10.
- Dry cows: 15.
- Milking cows: 40.
- Ponies: 5 gals/day.
- Light horses: 10.
- Heavy horses: 16.
- Donkeys: 6.
- Weaners: 1 gals/day.
- Feeders: 3.
- Boars: 5.
- Gestating sows: 5.
- Lactating sows: 6.
Sheep and Goats:
- Lambs and kids: 1 gals/day.
- Rams and bucks: 2.
- Gestating ewes and does: 2.
- Lactating meat ewes and does: 3.
- Lactating dairy ewes and does: 4.
- Bison: 6 gals/day.
- Elk: 6.
- Llamas and alpacas: 3.
Please be aware that this is not intended to be a definitive guide to animal water consumption. The amount of variables that can affect the amount of water any given animal drinks on any given day is staggering. Until you get a better feel for your livestock and your water supply, think in terms of worst-case scenario.
So does your projected water use match your available water resources? If not, you will need to plan to either reduce your water use or increase your water supply.
Water delivery methods vary by species, but there are a few golden rules that always apply:
- Your animals should never run out of water at any point during the day.
- They should have a fresh supply at least every 24 hours.
- Their water should be protected from soiling as much as possible.
This means that you may be breaking ice at regular intervals in the winter. It also means that hanging poultry drinkers should be monitored for leaks periodically. And it means that livestock should not be allowed to swim in the pond (ducks, geese, and swans are the exceptions, as they benefit from having water to bathe in).
Other logistical factors unique to your situation will apply. For example, moving cattle to fresh paddocks daily will likely necessitate a portable stock tank.
So do you have enough water to supply your animals? If so, you’re ready to take a look at fencing and facilities.
Waterers and Watering Systems
Free PDF from K-State that provides an overview of water sources, power sources, drink delivery options, livestock water requirements, and permits.