NDSU Extension - Morton County


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May 17, 2021 Water Quality

Morton County: Water Quality

By: Renae Gress, Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent, NDSU Extension


Dates to Remember:

  • May 24 - Morton County Drought Workshop, 1pm, New Salem
  • May 26 – Horse Management Webinar, Online
  • May 27 – Navigating Drought on Your Ranch, Online
  • June 8-Livestock Mineral Program, registration required
  • June 30-Menal Health First Aid Program, Mandan

Having access to good-quality water is one of the limiting factors for cattle in most grazing systems. Water is an important but often overlooked nutrient. Water quality and quantity may affect feed consumption and animal health. The quality of water has impacts on cattle intake and weight gain. Studies have reported improved gains by as much as 0.24 pound per day in yearlings and 0.33 pound per day in calves drinking good-quality water, according to NDSU Extension Specialists.

Due to the drought this year, water quality is going to be something producers need to keep an eye on. Since we had below normal snow and rain since fall of 2020, the surface water of many dams and dugouts have become low. When surface waters become low, the mineral component of the water becomes more concentrated because minerals do not evaporate with the water. Of particular concern are increased concentrations of total dissolved solids (TDS) and sulfates, which can be toxic to livestock.

For most classes of grazing livestock, the TDS in the water should be less than 5,000 parts per million (ppm). Sulfate is part of the TDS. The recommended concentration should be less than 500 ppm for calves and less than 1,000 ppm for adult cattle. High levels of sulfate can reduce copper availability in the diet. Elevated levels of sulfates may cause loose stool, whereas very high levels of sulfate can induce central nervous system problems.

Ranchers should monitor TDS and sulfate levels throughout the grazing season because weather and other factors can influence water quality. “We recommend the use of hand-held TDS meters as a quick method to screen water samples,” Meehan says. “If the screening indicates the TDS is greater than 4,500 ppm, submit a sample to a lab for additional analysis.” Sulfate test strips are another tool to screen water samples. Both of these tools are affordable and easy to use, according to Meehan.

Drought also increases the risk for cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) blooms that can produce toxins that are harmful to livestock, wildlife and people. Toxicity is dependent on the species consuming the water, the concentration of the toxin or toxins and the amount of water ingested. The best method for monitoring cyanobacteria is visually. However, this can be difficult due to how rapidly a bloom can develop and ranchers’ ability to check water frequently. One potential solution is to use a camera to monitor water locations. If a bloom is observed, livestock should be removed immediately and a water sample should be submitted for testing. The sample can be evaluated microscopically for potentially toxic species of cyanobacteria, or the water can be analyzed for several of the toxins at commercial labs at a higher cost.

If you are concerned about water quality, please contact the office at 667-3340 for assistance.


Sources: NDSU Agricultural Communications-Miranda Meehan, Ellen Crawford

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