Water Analysis Interpretation for Livestock

 
 
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 Water consists of two simple compounds: two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom bonded together (H2O). It is the most essential nutrient needed to sustain life. In most animals, water accounts for 50 to 70 per cent of body weight.

Water contains many different elements and compounds besides hydrogen and oxygen. These elements exist in water in a variety of forms, entering and leaving the water depending on the surrounding environment.

For example, the mineral composition of ground water is affected by the rock or soil type the water passes through or the amount of time it spends in an aquifer. Surface water can be affected by many of the same factors as ground water. In addition, surface water is influenced by airborne and soil pollutants, decaying organic matter and the removal of minerals by vegetative growth.

Watering Livestock

When assessing the suitability of a water supply for any class of livestock, consider each case individually. Give attention to the following factors:

  • species
  • class of animal
  • physical condition of the animals
  • environment
  • feed and the water
Compounds and elements in water may work together to create an effect greater than the sum of the separate components, or they may act against each other, interfering with the physiological action of each or against another element. Levels of compounds and elements in the feed should also be taken into account when evaluating the suitability of a water supply.

If applying reported information to practical situations, use good judgment. Many conditions are involved in determining whether or not certain levels of a toxicant will cause harm. So no single concentration can be accepted as dangerous in all situations.

Toxic substances may be in water in two phases: either in solution or as suspended solids. The nutritional availability of toxic elements or substances in these phases may differ considerably among animals. For the animals consuming them, different chemical forms of the elements frequently result in different toxicities.

The short-term intake of a toxic substance may have no observable effects while long-term consumption may result in serious harm. Different species of animals may react differently to a toxic element. Young healthy animals or unhealthy mature ones may not respond in the same way as mature healthy animals. The rate of consumption may also be a factor in the animals’ reactions.

Finally, the intake of toxic substances may not cause any measurable effect on growth, production or reproduction yet may cause sub-cellular damage. This damage can be expressed as increased susceptibility to disease or to parasitic invasion.

It should be pointed out that water sources, especially those from surface or shallow wells, can be subject to sudden or seasonal changes in composition from natural or human causes.

Water Quality Interpretation Chart for Livestock

For Table 1 to give meaningful results, users must also consider the salt and mineral content of the feed used along with the water.

Most of the figures in this chart are from studies where the feed contained levels of salt and minerals that met and did not exceed the requirements of the livestock species. Add the water mineral content to the feed mineral content to determine the total mineral intake for an animal.

An on-line tool is available to assess the suitability of water quality for privately owned and operated rural water supplies for a variety of uses including livestock watering. The Rural Water Quality Information Tool or RWQIT resides on the Alberta Agriculture and Food website and can be accessed at http://www.agric.gov.ab.ca/app84/rwqit

Table 1. Water quality interpretation chart for livestock use
Major ions | Heavy metals and trace ions

Item analysedWater content (mg/L or ppm)Usefulness for poultryUsefulness for pigsUsefulness for cattle, sheep and horses
Alkalinity (as CaCO3)
  • measured as mg/l as CaCo3
<500AcceptableAcceptable Acceptable
  • alkalinity measures water’s ability to neutralize acid
  • lower levels of CaCO3 can increase the laxative effects caused by high sulphate levels in young poultry or young animals
  • as level of alkalinity increases, the level at which sulphates will cause wet dropping or scouring decreases
501 - 1,000*AcceptableAcceptableAcceptable
1,001 - 2,500Poor
  • acceptable for mature birds
  • unsuitable for young poultry at higher levels
Poor
  • acceptable for mature animals
  • unsuitable for young pigs at higher level
Poor
  • acceptable for mature dry cows
  • unsuitable for young calves or lactating cows at higher levels
Conductivity
  • related to total dissolved solids
All levelsAcceptableAcceptable Acceptable
Hardness (as CaCO3)
<100 (soft)AcceptableAcceptableAcceptable
  • measured as CaCO3
  • as hardness level increases, scaling on distribution pipes, water heaters and fixtures may occur
101 - 2,000 (hard)AcceptableAcceptableAcceptable
Ignition loss*
  • measures organic matter, temporary hardness and some carbonates
All levels*AcceptableAcceptableAcceptable
*If water is discolored with a rotten or brackish taste, check for bacterial contamination that may be a health hazard.
pH
<5.5Acceptable AcceptableUnsuitable
reduced feed intake in cattle
acidosis may occur in feedlot or dairy cattle
6.5 - 8.0AcceptableAcceptableAcceptable
8.0 - 10PoorPoorPoor
>10UnsuitableUnsuitableUnsuitable
Total dissolved solids (TDS)
<1,000AcceptableAcceptable Acceptable
1,001 - 3,000Acceptable
  • except for poults under three weeks old
  • may cause watery droppings (at higher levels) but should not affect health or performance
AcceptableAcceptable
3,001 - 5,000*Poor
  • watery droppings
  • increased mortality, decreased growth (especially turkeys)
Acceptable
  • but may cause diarrhea or refusal of water by animals not accustomed to it
Acceptable
  • but may cause diarrhea
  • may reduce performance and affect health of calves at higher levels
5,001 - 7,000Unsuitable
  • erratic water intake
  • reduced productivity
  • health hazard may result in death
Poor
  • causes diarrhea
  • reduced water intake
  • health hazard
Poor
  • higher levels cause diarrhea, especially in lactating cows
  • avoid use for pregnant and/or lactating cows
  • test for sulfates
7,001 - 10,000UnsuitableUnsuitablePoor
  • older animals may subsist on it for longer periods
  • do not use for pregnant or lactating cattle or young animals.
  • sulfates likely to be high
>10,000UnsuitableUnsuitableUnsuitable
* Under experimental conditions, animals have produced satisfactorily at this and higher levels of TDS. However, production and health problems have been noted in the field even at levels of TDS below 4,000 ppm such as during hot, dry weather when polioencephalomalacia has been diagnosed in range cattle drinking from dugouts and ponds in Southern Alberta
Item analysedWater content (mg/L or ppm)Usefulness for poultryUsefulness for pigsUsefulness for cattle, sheep and horses
Major Ions
Calcium (Ca)
calcium ions*<1,000 AcceptableAcceptableAcceptable
Nitrate (NO-3) (alone) or Nitrate Nitrogen (NO3-N) (alone)
  • adapted from Watkins 2004**
  • 100 mg NO-3 alone or 23 NO3-N alone recommended upper limit for livestock and poultry
  • 0 - 11 NO-3
or
  • 0 - 2 NO3-N
Acceptable**AcceptableAcceptable
  • Nitrate (NO-3) plus nitrite (NO-2) should also not exceed 100 mg/L
  • The values in this table only apply when water is the sole source of nitrate (NO-3)
  • When nitrates (NO-3) are present from multiple sources (e.g., feed and water) consult your nutritionist and/or veterinarian
  • 12 - 44 NO-3
or
  • 3 - 10 NO3-N
Poor**
  • nitrate levels greater than 10 may impact broiler performance as seen by poor weight gains, health problems or poor flock performance
  • nitrate levels above 20 may be detrimental to mature poultry performance
AcceptableAcceptable
  • Animals adapted to nitrate (NO-3) may tolerate higher NO-3 levels
  • Animals that are stressed or unhealthy may show symptoms of NO-3 toxicity with NO-3 levels below the guidelines
  • 45 - 132 NO-3
or
  • 10 - 30 NO3-N
Poor**
  • may decrease body weight, health problems or poor flock performance
AcceptableAcceptable
  • generally safe in balanced diets with low nitrate feeds
  • 133 - 220 NO-3
or
  • 30 - 49 NO3-N
Unsuitable
  • chickens – may decrease body weight after 30 days of exposure
  • may result in death
AcceptablePoor
  • could be harmful if consumed over long periods with feeds containing nitrate
Conversions
  • when measured as NO-3 divide by 4.43 to obtain ppm nitrate nitrogen (NO3-N)
  • when measured as NO3-N multiply by 4.43 to obtain ppm nitrate (NO-3)
  • when measured as NaNO3 multiply by 0.729 to obtain ppm NO-3
  • when measured as KNO3 multiply by 0.613 to obtain ppm nitrate (NO-3)
  • 221 - 443 NO-3
or
  • 50 - 100 NO3-N
UnsuitableAcceptableUnsuitable
  • cattle at risk especially if feeds also high in nitrates
  • abortions and/or death
  • >443 NO-3
or
  • >100 NO3-N
Unsuitable
  • toxic resulting in death
Poor
  • levels up to 750 mg/L can be tolerated by pigs before daily gain decreases
Unsuitable
  • toxic
  • high risk of abortions and death
  • should not be used as a source of water
Nitrite (NO-2)
  • 10 mg/L nitrites recommended upper limit for livestock and poultry
  • Nitrate (NO-3) plus nitrite (NO-2) should also not exceed 100 mg/L
  • may indicate fecal contamination*
<10AcceptableAcceptableAcceptable


11 - 23*PoorPoorPoor
Conversion
Nitrite nitrogen (N02-N) multiply by 3.29 to obtain nitrite (NO-2)>23Unsuitable
  • may decrease body weight
PoorUnsuitable
  • potentially dangerous if nitrates high in water or feed
Potassium (K)
  • both sodium and potassium contribute to alkalinity
<20AcceptableAcceptable Acceptable
  • additive with sodium;
  • therefore, they should be added together when water quality is being evaluated
21 to 300Acceptable
but may be unsuitable depending on alkalinity and pH
Acceptable
but may be unsuitable depending on alkalinity and pH
Acceptable
but may be depending on alkalinity and pH
Sodium (Na)
  • by itself, sodium poses little risk to livestock, but its association with sulphate is a major concern
<400 mg/LAcceptableAcceptableAcceptable
  • sodium chloride (salt) has additive effects with sulphates; therefore, these two should be added together when water quality is evaluated
  • both sodium and potassium contribute to alkalinity and therefore should be added together when water quality is being evaluated
>400Acceptable
but may be unsuitable depending on alkalinity and pH
Acceptable
but may be unsuitable depending on alkalinity and pH
salt may be reduced in swine diets if the sodium in the water exceeds 400 mg/L
Acceptable
but may be unsuitable depending on alkalinity and pH
over 800 mg/L Na can cause diarrhea and a drop in milk production in dairy cows.
high sodium levels in water may require adjustments to the amount of salt (NaCl) added to beef and dairy ration
Sulphate (SO4-)
  • measured as SO4-
<125 Acceptable
  • desirable sulphate level in drinking water
AcceptableAcceptable
  • part of Epsom salt (MgSO4)
<500 Acceptable
  • maximum acceptable level of sulphate in drinking water
AcceptableAcceptable
  • tolerance of cattle to sulphur in water depends on the level in feed
  • additive effect with sodium chloride
  • they should be added together when water quality is evaluated
501 - 1000 Unsuitable
wet droppings
  • the smaller the animal, the greater the effect
Acceptable
  • diarrhea in animals not accustomed to it
  • effect of sulphates depends on body mass of an animal
  • the smaller the animal, the greater the effect
  • weanling pigs can be affected by relatively low levels of sulphates
Acceptable
  • diarrhea or refusal of water by animals not accustomed to it
  • 500 to 800 mg/L may affect calves inducing a trace mineral deficiency
  • trace mineral deficiencies can cause depressed growth rate, fertility and depressed immune response
  • decreased performance in feedlot cattle
  • 1,000 mg/L recommended maximum if feed level is high or temperature is high
1,001 - 2,500Unsuitable
  • increased water intake
  • increased wet droppings
Poor
  • no effect on growth performance
  • feces not as firm, mild diarrhea in older animals
  • weanling pigs can have chronic diarrhea
Poor
  • laxative
  • sporadic cases of polio seen in feedlot cattle
  • performance reduced
  • 2,000 mg/L> can cause diarrhea and reduced milk production in dairy cows
  • high levels of sulphates can also contribute to copper deficiencies in beef and diary cattle
>2,500Unsuitable
  • over 3,000 mg/L, health hazard to young birds
  • 4,400 mg/L depresses feed intake and egg production and resulted in 15% mortality over a 3-to-4 week period
  • 7,000 mg/L sodium sulphate for 15 days resulted in 33% mortality
  • 15,000 mg/L reduced growth rate in immature chicks
Unsuitable
  • increases diarrhea
  • no effect on growth performance
  • 3,320 mg/L sodium sulphate in water may increase water consumption
Unsuitable
  • sporadic cases of polio are highly probable in feedlot cattle
  • performance of feedlot cattle reduced
  • performance of grazing cattle may be affected
  • scours
  • unsuitable for lactating dairy cows
  • greater than 4,000 mg/L dangerous health problems expected
Item analysedWater content (mg/L or ppm)Usefulness for poultryUsefulness for pigsUsefulness for cattle, sheep and horses
Heavy Metals and Trace Ions
Aluminum (Al)
  • recommended maximum concentration in water
  • not essential to animals
5.0AcceptableAcceptableAcceptable
Arsenic (As)
  • maximum concentration in water if arsenic added to feed to enhance growth
<0.5AcceptableAcceptableAcceptable
  • maximum concentration if arsenic not added to feed
5.0AcceptableAcceptableAcceptable
Boron (B)
  • maximum concentration in water
  • safe concentrations may be as high as 40 mg/L
5AcceptableAcceptableAcceptable
Cadmium (Cd)
  • recommended maximum concentration in water
0.02AcceptableAcceptableAcceptable
Chloride (Cl)
  • sodium chloride (salt) has additive effects with sulphates. Therefore, these two should be added together when water quality is evaluated
<15,000AcceptableAcceptableAcceptable
>15,000Acceptable
  • reduced growth of immature chickens
  • effect largely overcome by adding Na and K
AcceptableAcceptable
Cobalt (Co)
  • recommended maximum concentration in water
  • toxicity symptoms not likely as cobalt is an essential trace element
1.0AcceptableAcceptableAcceptable
Copper (Cu)
  • copper is essential to animal health
< 0.5AcceptableAcceptableAcceptable
  • maximum for sheep
  • greater than 0.5 fatal for sheep
  • 0.1 mg/L of copper can oxidize flavour in cows milk
1.0AcceptableAcceptableAcceptable
  • maximum for cattle
  • levels above 0.6 mg/L can result in liver damage in dairy cows, even though this is below the level considered toxic
5.0Acceptable
  • maximum for poultry
Acceptable
  • maximum for swine
Unsuitable
Fluoride (F)
<2.0 AcceptableAcceptableAcceptable
>2.0Acceptable
  • browning and mottling of teeth may occur
  • if fluoride is included in feed, concentration should not exceed 1 mg/L
Acceptable
  • browning and mottling of teeth may occur
  • if fluoride is included in feed, concentration should not exceed 1 mg/
Acceptable
  • browning and mottling of teeth may occur
  • if fluoride is included in feed, concentration should not exceed 1 mg/
Iron (Fe)
<0.3AcceptableAcceptableAcceptable
  • 0.1 mg/L can cause coloration of meat in veal calves.
  • 0.1 mg/l can also give milk an oxidized flavour
>0.3Acceptable
  • tastes bad, minimal effect on water intake or productivity
Acceptable
  • tastes bad, minimal effect on water intake or productivity
Acceptable
  • tastes bad, minimal effect on water intake or productivity
Lead (Pb)
  • recommended maximum concentration in water
  • young animals tend to be more susceptible to lead poisoning than adults
0.1Acceptable Acceptable Acceptable
Mercury (Hg)
  • recommended maximum concentration in water
  • health hazard to animals and to human consumers
0.003AcceptableAcceptableAcceptable
Molybdenum (Mo)
  • recommended maximum concentration in water
  • an essential element, but it is toxic
  • linked to intake of copper and sulphate
  • copper: Mo ration of 2:1 will prevent poisoning
0.5Acceptable
  • poultry more tolerant than cattle to poisoning
Acceptable
  • swine more tolerant than cattle to poisoning
Acceptable
  • molybdenum can reduce absorption of copper causing a copper deficiency
Selenium (Se)
  • recommended maximum concentration in water
  • an essential element, but at high levels can be toxic
  • total diet intake of selenium (feed plus water levels) should be monitored if toxicity suspected
0.05AcceptableAcceptableAcceptable
Vanadium (V)
  • recommended maximum concentration in water
0.01AcceptableAcceptableAcceptable

References
  • Alberta Agriculture and Food. 2005. Water Requirements for Livestock. Agdex 400/716-1.
  • Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, 1987. Canadian Water Tolerances Quality Guidelines. Water Quality Branch, Inland Waters Directorate, Environment Canada, Ottawa.
  • Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives, 2006. Evaluating Water Quality for Livestock, [Online] Available: http://www.gov.mb.ca/agriculture/livestock/nutrition/bza01s06.html
  • National Research Council, 2005. Mineral Tolerance of Animals. 2nd revised edition. National Academies Press. Washington, D.C.
  • Puls, R., 1994. Mineral Levels in Animal Health. 2nd edition. Sherpa International. Clearbrook, BC.
  • Watkins S., 2004. Water quality and sanitation. Proceedings Poultry Service Industry Workshop. Banff, AB.
For more information, contact:
Alberta Ag-Info Centre
  • Toll-free in Alberta: 310 FARM (310-3276) or 1-866-882-7677
  • Out of province: 1-403-742-7901
Prepared by:
Second edition – Tennis Marx, M.Sc.
First edition – Sam Jaikaran, M.Sc. P.Ag.

Source: Agdex 400/716-2. Revised April 2007.
 
 
 
 
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This information published to the web on June 1, 1993.
Last Reviewed/Revised on April 1, 2007.