Understanding Livestock Water Suitability

Recently, I have consulted with packgoat hobbyist and livestock producers to interpret their livestock water suitability report. Because water is a vital nutrient, understanding these reports is very important to make good decisions. Water plays an important role and many biological functions including transportation of essential nutrients to body tissues and cells, lubricant for the digestive and reproductive systems, cushioning and protection for vital organs, waste and excretion and regulation of body temperature. Often, we are very aware of water’s role in body temperature regulation during hot summer months. However, we tend to forget that providing clean plentiful water is just as important in winter months. So, there are several key components to consider when reviewing livestock water suitability reports.


First, optimal pH should be better 6.5-8.5. The effect of acidic or more basic water consumption have not been well defined. However, most water analysis I have looked over have fallen within the acceptable range.

Total Dissolved Solids (TDS)

Second, TDS is the measure of all minerals dissolved in the water. Typically, these are soluble “salts”.  High salinity or TDS waters can result in mineral imbalances, diarrhea and decreased production performance. So, it is key to understand where the TDS is at in your water source. Furthermore, this is especially important for pond during drought conditions, when water is more concentrated.


Third, toxic levels of sodium vary by livestock species. Cattle, sheep and goat diets should be adjusted to reduce salt intake when water sodium is greater than 800 ppm. Moreover, high concentrations of sodium typically make animals more thirsty. Consequently, they drink more water in a viscous cycle.

Total Hardness

Hardness is the total calcium and magnesium ions in water. In recent consultations, hardness has contributed to the formation of urinary calculi in wether goats. Furthermore, hardness can contribute to other mineral imbalances through interactions with calcium and magnesium within the total diet.


In specific forage species, nitrates are known to be a risk. Similarly, nitrates in the water can also contribute to nitrate toxicity. On a low nitrate diet, ruminants can tolerate up to 20 ppm NO3-N in their water source.


Similar to nitrates, sulfates in the water combined with dietary concentrations of sulfur can contribute to animal health concerns. So, sulfates in the water contribute to diarrhea, poor performance and the development of Polioencephalomalacia (PEM).  Commonly, cattle affected by PEM are referred to as “Brainer” cows.

In conclusion, it is important to analyze livestock water. After receiving a livestock water suitability report, refer to the Ward Guide for help understanding your results. The Ward Guide provides specific guidelines for all livestock and was compiled from National Research Council resources. Furthermore, we have consultants available to help answer questions and assist in solving water quality or dietary mineral issues.


About the author

Rebecca earned her M.S. in Animal Nutrition from the University of Wyoming with a collaborative project with the US Meat Animal Research Center. She is an active member of the American Registry of Professional Animal Scientists. With a passion for producer education she is a regular contributor to Progressive Forage Magazine. Currently, she serves as the Immediate Past President of the NIRS Forage and Feed Testing Consortium (NIRSC).

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