Access to Water Critical for Wintering Beef Cattle

by Rhonda R. Gildersleeve, UW Extension Grazing Specialist, featured in January Wisconsin Agriculturalist

Cattle need daily access to water to meet their needs during winter months, although the total amount consumed decreases compared to warmer weather conditions. Water intake by beef cattle is quite constant up to 40⁰F. Table 1 lists the expected daily water intake of various classes of beef cattle under cool temperature conditions.

Table 1.  Approximate daily water intake of beef cattle at temperatures of 40⁰F or less (adapted from: Nutrient Requirements of Beef Cattle, NRC, 1996).

Class of cattle

Weight, lbs.

Daily intake, gallons/day

Growing heifers, steers, bulls

400 – 800

4.0 – 6.5

Finishing cattle

600 – 800

6.0 – 7.5

Finishing cattle

800 – 1,000

7.5 – 9.0

Dry, pregnant cows

900 – 1,100


Lactating cows

>  900


Mature bulls

>  1400


In colder weather, cattle need to consume more feed to meet energy needs. For every 1 pound of dry matter consumed, cattle need to drink about 7 pounds of water to maintain desired levels of dry matter intake.  Animal performance suffers because feed intake is suppressed when adequate access to good quality water is not available to meet their needs. As a result, feedlot gains, lactation levels, and calf growth rates are reduced and farm production goals will be impacted.

Some producers have questioned the need for a year round water supply, since snow is usually available during winter months. Limited research has been conducted on use of snow as a sole water source for out-wintered cattle. Canadian researchers reported that mature cows in adequate body condition (score 5 or higher) can maintain themselves and their calves with snow as the only water resource. However, another study reported that weaned calves (450 – 600 pounds) had lower average daily gains (- 0.2 lbs) and reduced feed efficiency compared to calves with access to water.

The Canadian researchers also observed that eating snow is a learned behavior, and cattle preferred, clean, loose snow that they can easily scoop up with a sweeping motion using their tongue, much as they graze forages. Dirty snow, ice, crusted snow, or even dry, fluffy snow conditions may prevent adequate water intake. Restlessness, bellowing, and interruption of regular eating patterns were observed in animals that were not meeting their water requirements due to poor snow quality and availability.  Thus, while snow may be considered an emergency water source during Wisconsin winters, good animal husbandry practices should include ensuring access to water to prevent winter dehydration and maintain desired animal performance.

Quality of the water available to cattle must also be considered in maintaining desired water consumption levels, particularly if using surface water sources.  Creeks, streams, or ponds have long served as a winter water source on many Wisconsin farms. To limit trampling damage and contamination of the water source with dirt and manure, conservation planners recommend development of an improved access area to maintain surface water quality and ensure adequate water intake. Planning or cost share assistance may be available through your local NRCS or county Land Conservation Office for development of livestock access points from natural water sources.

Many producers prefer to provide livestock unlimited access to water using a heated water source situated in a suitable location. In addition to fountains heated with electricity, products and plans for livestock water systems are available that can be kept ice free using solar and geothermal energy sources to minimize costs and provide access in pasture locations some distance from the farmstead.

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