Hydrating Your Beef Herd

Published on Fri, 04/29/2022 - 9:54am

Hydrating Your Beef Herd

 By Bruce Derksen.

 Beef cattle producers are beginning to hear more and more about not only the fine tuning of feed intake and diet, but also the proper hydration of their livestock.  At first glance it seems simple and uncomplicated.  Food, water and shelter are among the basics of all life, so make sure your cattle have them, but if we look specifically at hydration, it does mean more than just having a water bowl, pond, dugout or trough within walking distance.  A good start, but there can and will be times and reasons why that is not enough.  Are you bringing new cattle into the group that don’t know where the water supply is?  Are there older dominant cows that “guard” the only available water bowl just because they can?  Or is there sickness in members of your herd causing them to not actively seek out and make the effort to use the available water?

Sixty percent of the total body weight of the average beef cow is fluid, most being water.  If they become challenged in any way by the threat of disease, proper water availability or changes in environment or management systems, at a certain point they will begin using up their own bodily reserves of fluids in an attempt to maintain homeostasis.
Not all situations of dehydration in livestock are easy to determine.  Cattle in the early stages measuring below four percent of their body weight will have minimal observable symptoms but will begin to show a reduction in their production or psychological efficiencies.

Cattle with a higher degree of dehydration in the five to ten percent of body weight range will display recognizable physical indications including sunken dull eyes, tacky mucus membranes, skin tenting that takes longer than normal to return to form, plus outward depression.  At this point, feed intake will fall affecting the animal’s efficiency.  Accepted studies show that dehydration at seven to eight percent of body weight will negatively impact an animal’s immune response to disease.

The rumen acts as a fluid reservoir, but in the early stages of dehydration an animal draws on this supply to maintain normal fluid balance.  The cow or calf is already becoming dehydrated although its first response maintains the disguise of normalcy and health.  As this reservoir is depleted, the animal’s body weight will shrink and if not treated will lead to severe, life threatening clinical dehydration.

If an animal is recognized in the early stages of dehydration, treatment can be initiated with a high level of success.  Young calves can be drenched orally with energy sources and electrolytes through the use of an esophageal bag and tube.  Dehydrated adult cattle generally have a metabolic alkalosis so it is important to use a non-alkalinizing oral solution that does not contain a bicarbonate.  Consult your veterinarian for the correct type of electrolyte solution to administer.  It is very important to use a non-chilled source of water so an unnecessary shock is not conveyed to the animal’s system.

If dehydration is not caught early enough, an intravenous treatment may be required as this is the fastest way to deliver the medications and fluids throughout the body.

Forward thinking suggests that prevention is the best cure.  With cattle dehydration, it is your easiest and most effective weapon.  Addressing the possible issues before they become realities will block most, if not all of these problems.  Offer a free choice salt and mineral supply and have good quality water available for your herd.  Anticipate and address environmental changes, transportation issues or any other variations in routine.  When introducing new cattle to the pastures or pens, have multiple obvious water troughs or “wet” bowls immediately available.  Don’t use pen designs that allow dominant cows to keep timid ones from the water sources, and most important of all, cultivate your relationship with your veterinarian to maintain a proper herd health plan that controls the possible spread of sickness and disease.  Watch your animal’s behavior and attitudes closely monitoring and addressing fluid losses such as diarrhea and suspect stool conditions.  It is a fact that healthy, happy cattle will naturally partake of the basics of life including eating, drinking and shelter, helping to cement an efficient productive herd.