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Drought May Have Compromised Livestock Water Quality

Livestock producers should test the water in ponds, dugouts and other water sources because last year's drought may have compromised the quality of the water. (NDSU photo) Livestock producers should test the water in ponds, dugouts and other water sources because last year's drought may have compromised the quality of the water. (NDSU photo)
Test water quality prior to livestock turnout.

Many producers are continuing to feel the effects of the 2017 drought, which are lingering into the 2018 grazing season.

Numerous ponds and dugouts dried up as a result of the drought, and any water remaining in others may not be the best quality.

“Runoff from snowmelt and spring rains may not be enough to replenish depleted ponds and dugouts, and water quality in ponds and dugouts still may be compromised by concentrated levels of salts, minerals and bacteria,” warns Miranda Meehan, North Dakota State University Extension livestock environmental stewardship specialist.

Michelle Mostrom, a toxicologist in NDSU’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, recommends producers test their livestock’s water sources for total dissolved solids (TDS), sulfates and nitrates. TDS measure salts. These levels should be less than 5,000 parts per million (ppm) for most classes of grazing livestock. Elevated levels of TDS may be harmful to livestock health.

Sulfate levels 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 and polioencephelomalacia, a brain disorder in cattle.

Nitrate in itself is not toxic to animals, but at elevated levels, it causes nitrate poisoning. Water sources that receive runoff from fields and confined feeding locations that contain elevated levels of nitrogen are at risk of contamination.

During the 2017 drought, NDSU Extension helped producers collect 94 water samples for laboratory testing; 82 of these samples contained potentially toxic levels of TDS.

“We recommend that livestock producers test water quality prior to livestock turnout, especially if their water sources had elevated TDS last year,” says Janna Kincheloe, Extension livestock systems specialist at NDSU’s Hettinger Research Extension Center.

“Monitoring water quality throughout the grazing season is important because the quality changes in response to climate and environmental conditions,” Kincheloe adds. “The importance will be magnified if the drought continues into the growing season, especially when using a shallow water source and sources with a history of water quality issues.”

Many commercial laboratories and the NDSU Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory provide testing for livestock water quality and specialized testing. The cost of a basic water quality test is approximately $25.

When collecting and submitting a sample for analysis, follow the livestock water testing guidelines at If you need assistance, contact your local Extension agent or watershed coordinator.

If concerned about livestock disease caused by contaminated drinking water, contact your local veterinarian, NDSU Extension veterinarian Gerald Stokka at 701-231-5082 or, or the NDSU Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at 701-231-8307 or

More information on livestock water quality is available in the following Extension publications:

NDSU Agriculture Communication - May 4, 2018

Source:Miranda Meehan, 701-231-7683,
Source:Janna Kincheloe, 701-567-4323,
Source:Michelle Mostrom, 701-231-7529,
Editor:Ellen Crawford, 701-231-5391,
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