Summertime Focus on Water

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Published on: June 17, 2016

Summertime Focus on Water

By: Mid Maryland Dairy Vets

The Blue Mountains were disappearing in the haze.  It was a hazy, hot, and humid day in August and at midday, time to catch the show heifer on pasture for a much-needed drink.  Unfortunately, she had something else in mind, like a game of tag.  After the farmer got close enough to lasso the halter over her head, the heifer took off like a Kentucky Derby Thoroughbred out of the gates.  The chase was on without an ATV or a roping horse and of course asking for help was out of the question.  He was not prepared for this game in sweltering midday heat and humidity.  So after 20 minutes of a full-on chase, the non-athletically gifted caretaker collapsed with exhaustion and dehydration as his vision became blurred and the dreaded cold sweat took over.  With heat stress and exhaustion setting in, he needed to cool down, rehydrate, and then ask for help.

At calving, dairy cows are like the thoroughbred jumping out of the gates.  Calving starts a full-on sprint that continues until the dry period.  With the high nutrient demands for milk production, reproductive recovery, and pregnancy, resources must be available to sustain optimal performance.   Without adequate resource availability especially during environmental stress which increases nutrient demands, the dairy cow will end up like our exhausted farmer in the story.  Water is the main component of milk, the major driver of dry matter intake, and essential for maintenance.  And regrettably, many dairy farms lack adequate high quality water availability to sustain our workhorse, the dairy cow.

Dairy cows need 4 to 4.5 pounds of water for every pound of milk produced.  A single cow may consume over 300 pounds of water per day from drinking water or feed consumption.  A lactating dairy cow requires 30 to 50 gallons per day, which can be doubled as a result of heat stress.  Water consumption drives dry matter intakes, so if water consumption is limited, DMI is depressed.  Therefore, every dairy farm requires 3-4″ water trough perimeter per cow.  Using those dimensions, many dairy farms will be considered deficient.  Each group or pen should have at least 2 water troughs located close to a feed bunk and away from direct sunlight, which limits intakes and can promote algae growth.  The water troughs must be free of obstacles such as rails or trough foundation ledges, which may impede consumption.  Allow adequate open space around the water trough, especially in cross-alleys.  A facility requires at least 13.5 feet of cross-alley width to allow watering and walking.

When are cows in most need of quenching their thirst?  Cows consume more water when they exit the parlor than at any other period throughout the day.  Cows consume at least 10%, perhaps as much as 50 to 60%, of their daily water intake from the parlor exit trough.   As a result, make it easier for them to quench their insatiable thirst.  Position a water trough outside the milking parlor and provide a 2-foot perimeter for every parlor stall.  You have a large slug of cows exiting at one time, so a longer trough is required to accommodate the extra visitors.  Cows prefer to drink warm water, even in warm temperatures. Warm plate cooler water is perfect source and can be piped into the parlor exit trough.

In tie stalls, the parlor exit trough is close to the cow 24 hours a day.  However, obstacles are the main problem to the tie stall water bowl.  Distance from the top of the water bowl to any obstruction above it should be greater than 24 inches.  Provide a 30-inch opening for easy access if a manger divider is installed or if the bowl is mounted over the bed or within stall divider.  In many cases, raising the tie rail 8 to 12 inches or 40 to 46″ above stall bed can improve access to the feed table and to water.

And we have not forgotten about the grazers.  Studies have shown increased rate gains and production levels by maintaining a water trough within 600 to 800 feet of the primary grazing area.  It does pay to move water to each paddock.  Keep it portable.

It may be all the way out on the range, but you must keep the water trough clean.  How clean is your water bowl or trough?  Are you willing to cup your hands and take a swig?  Clean at least once per week by draining, brushing with sanitizer, and rinsing.  Using dilute bleach solution will disinfect troughs and slow down the spread of diseases transferred from mucus.

Cleaning your water troughs or bowls will not accommodate poor quality water sources.  Ensure that your water source provides adequate availability during peak demand periods. At least once or twice a year, test your water sources.  If testing reveals a water quality problem, test at 2 additional labs to confirm the results before installing a sanitation system which can be costly.  Poor well location and construction are common problems on farms.  As a result, a third of all wells are contaminated with coliform bacteria.  Wellhead protection is 100 feet minimum to allow green space that protects from grazing and run-off.  The sanitary well cap may not seal properly, increasing the risk for rodent or insect contamination.  By grading the ground away from the cap and installing a proper casing to bedrock, you can reduce the risk of run-off well contamination.

Springs used as a water source also offer unique management considerations.  Believe or not, a Pennsylvania study confirmed that 75% of all springs sampled in the state were contaminated with coliform bacteria.  Springs are very susceptible to surface contamination and require treatment.

Calves are at greater risk for illness if they consume coliform contaminated water compared to the cow with a fully functioning rumen and fermentation vat.  As a result, we recommend using hygienic water that can be simply treated using a cap-full of Clorox in 5 gallon water.  Allow the water to sit 20 minutes for an adequate bacterial kill before using.  Do not forget that summer heat stress increases the calf’s maintenance requirement 20 to 30%!  In fact you can see lower production levels in calves born in the environmentally stressful periods of the year (winter and summer) compared to those calves born during less stressful seasons.  Feed a greater volume of milk or milk replacer to meet higher energy needs and to maintain adequate hydration.  Provide free-choice water at all times, especially at night when consumption increases.  Use a 5-gallon bucket with fresh water for every calf.  A heat-stressed calf can consume 6 gallons of water!  Finally, place dividers between fluid sources and grain to prevent the grain from spoiling.

You can improve the performance of your dairy herd and lessen the impact of heat stress by addressing water accessibility and quality concerns.  Ask you dairy team for assistance to assess and improve water management on your farm.

After regaining consciousness, he slogged back down to the farm, took a big swig of water from the water hose, dunked his head in the water trough, and asked his father for help.  They drove the 4-wheeler right next to the now-panting heifer, who never budged from her spot in the tall grass.  Father jumped off and easily slipped the halter over the heifer’s head.  He looked over at his son and said, “That was easy.  All you had to do was ask.”

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