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Producers often invest a great deal of time and money in developing nutrition and grazing strategies for their cattle. It is often taken for granted that if water is available, cattle productivity can be maintained. This is not always the case. The quality of water available to cattle can have substantial impacts on productivity. Much of the water available to cattle in South Dakota, and other parts of the United States, is not sufficient in quality to sustain performance and health of cattle.
Field observations from our laboratory since 1999 have shown both surface and subsurface water to be high in total dissolved solids (TDS, an estimate of total salts) and sulfates. In the midst of drought conditions in 2002, we observed surface water with sulfates as high as 10,000 parts per million (ppm). Data from the USDA’s National Animal Health Monitoring System (APHIS, 2000) showed samples collected in South Dakota feedlots averaged over 1000 ppm in sulfates. Gould et al. (2002) concluded that 6% of 498 subsurface water samples taken in regions across the United States had sulfates greater than 1000 ppm, with 50% of those coming from water in the North-Central Region (SD, ND, NE, and KS). The authors reported that in multiple locations in South Dakota, sulfur intake from water and forage exceeded the NRC (1996) maximum tolerable level of dietary sulfur (0.4% of dry matter). Drought conditions not only compromise the quantity of water available to cattle, but the lack of moisture re-charge exacerbates water quality problems.