Watering Cows** with Snow - Frequently Asked Questions

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 In late fall and early winter, the problem is to provide water to animals that are out on range or swath grazing, is it okay for cows to consume snow as their only water source?
After a short adjustment period cows will consume adequate amounts of snow to meet water requirements. Eating snow it is a learned behavior rather than instinct, therefore an adjustment period is needed for the cows to learn how to eat snow. Generally, it takes 3 days for cows to adapt to eating snow.

Can cows get sick from eating snow?
Cows will not get sick from eating snow. Cattle do well when snow is their only water source, as long as there is adequate snow present, and it is not hard or crusted over. It is important to monitor cow and snow condition on a daily or second day basis. A lack of water reduces feed intake, and cows can loose condition fairly rapidly when water is deficient. Studies in Canada have shown some cows have gone 50 to 60 days with snow as the sole water source without any adverse effects.

Will the intake of snow affect the birth weights of calves?
Snow intake during pregnancy will not have any noticeable affect on birth weight of calves. Proper nutrition, protein and energy levels, are important factors in affecting the birth weights of calves.

Can cows in early lactation obtain adequate amounts of water from consuming snow?
No. Cows in early lactation require a water source. Animals will not be able to consume adequate amounts of feed. Body condtion will be reduced and milk production impaired.

Will feed intake increase for cattle consuming snow?
Feed intake and weight gain do not change significantly when snow is the water source. Heat created during the digestion process is enough to melt the snow and warm it to body temperature. Normal feeding programs will keep the cow in good condition.

What are the advantages of cattle using snow instead of water?
Using snow as a water source can lengthen the grazing season on stockpiled pasture or swath grazing. Lower production costs (no water bowls, water lines, or power needed to heat water or pump water). Manure produced when animals are out on pasture or swath grazing is deposited in the field, and does not need to be hauled in the spring. Tractor and equipment costs are lower because the animals move to the feed rather than moving feed to the animals.

What are some disadvantages of cattle using snow instead of water?
Erratic weather, if snow hardens and crusts over due to drifting or rain, there is little time to provide an alternate source of water. Animals must be brought off the grazing area if water or snow is not available in adequate quantities.

The following are suggested amount for water intake per day for beef cows (1200-pound animal).

Water Intake *

Environmental Temperature (oC)

38 litres ( 8.4 gallons)

- 17 to +10

38 litres (8.6 gallons)

10 to 15

44 litres (9.8 gallons)

15 to 21

47 litres (10.4 gallons)

21 to 27

59 litres (13.2 gallons)

above 27
* Litres or Imperial gallons

Pregnant Cows - For the last 4 months of pregnancy multiply the above water values by 1.5.

* * These management recommendations were developed for beef cattle. This information does not apply to other types of livestock.

Swath Grazing
Utilizing Snow as a Water Source
Snow as a Water Source Gov. of Saskatchewan
Snow as a Water Source for Wintering Beef Cattle
Annuals for Extending the Grazing Season
Snow as a Water Source Foragebeef.ca

Prepared by Nanita Blomquist, Ag-Info Centre, Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development

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For more information about the content of this document, contact Barry Yaremcio.
This document is maintained by Mary Ann Nelson.
This information published to the web on January 16, 2004.
Last Reviewed/Revised on April 30, 2015.