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Watch your dugout water quality

Two years of dry weather has the province urging producers to take a more critical look at their dugouts

Dry conditions for the past two growing seasons could be lowering both surface and ground water quality. The province is recommending testing.

If you’re fighting salinity in your soil, chances are you’ve got salinity in your water as well.

That was one of the messages as Russell veterinarian Dr. Cathy Clemence addressed farmers in Binscarth Jan. 15.

Water made its way onto the agenda during this year’s Manitoba Beef and Forage Week, a round of annual seminars focused on market and production knowledge.

Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development, along with local veterinarians, warned producers not to discount water quality’s part in cattle nutrition during this year’s events.

The seminars come after yet another dry season throughout much of 2019. The province reported low water supplies in dry regions throughout the growing season. Producers across the central, western and northern end of agricultural Manitoba reported pumping water to their cattle last summer, while water quality was linked to cattle deaths on one farm in the northern Interlake. About 10 cattle were impacted in the incident after their water source developed toxic blue-green algae.

Robert Shwaluk of Shoal Lake was among those worried about water. Shwaluk was pumping water to his cattle this summer, while cattle in his dugouts were, “right to their belly in mud trying to get to that puddle in the middle of the slough.”

Shwaluk ended up fighting hoof rot problems on top of his water concerns.

Even pumping water from the sloughs did not fully solve the issue.

“I didn’t want them walking so far into the mud — that would discourage how much they would drink — so you pump it into a trough and there would be inches of mud at the bottom that would settle out,” he said.

The problems

Low water led to concerns about salinity, sulphates and toxicity in the driest parts of the province. For salinity, the province recommends beef cattle get no more than 4,000 milligrams of total dissolved solids per litre of water (mg/l), with a maximum tolerance between 4,000 and 5,000 mg/l.

Blue-green algae presents yet another concern, one that Clemence says is hard to identify by sight alone. It is almost impossible to determine if algae growing on a dugout is toxic just by inspecting it, she said.

The algae can pose both fast-acting and slow-acting toxicity concerns, the province notes. Cows found dead next to the water’s edge may have fallen prey to fast-acting neurotoxins causing paralysis. Other toxins, meanwhile, may cause liver damage and take longer to kill.

“That’s really hard to diagnose,” Clemence said.

The vet suggested that producers pump water out of a dugout and into a trough rather than have cattle wade if they have to use that dugout. In theory, she said, that should limit the risk of cattle consuming the toxins since water is pumped from below the floating algae.

Sulphates present another concern, one that has less to do with direct toxicity and more to do with the tie-up of nutrients. High sulphate levels are well known for tying up copper and can lead to polio, since they impair the cow’s ability to produce vitamin B1. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine suggests that sulphate levels should not exceed 0.3 to 0.5 per cent in a beef ration, while the recommended level sits no higher than 0.15 per cent.

Clemence is well acquainted with linking copper deficiency to water, even in wet years. Areas around Riding Mountain National Park are notoriously high in molybdenum, another substance known to tie up copper, she said, and producers face increased abortion rates and low conception if they don’t heap on copper supplements.

“It contributes to copper deficiencies in huge amounts up there,” she said.

In one case, she said, a farm faced open rates up to 40 per cent two years in a row. After blood tests, the farm started regular copper supplements. Even then, open rates remained at 15-20 per cent and about half of the cattle were copper deficient. The farm has since introduced continuous supplementation. Open rates have dropped, Clemance noted, but blood tests have still found that cattle have only marginal copper levels, despite the supplements.

Shwaluk also fights copper problems. Initial tests to his well water flagged high sulphate levels causing poor hair coats and conception issues in his cattle.

“Years ago, we used to inject copper,” he said, although the hassle and expense eventually convinced him to look for other solutions, such as copper sulphate added into his ration.

“Now it’s pretty standard,” he said, noting that most feed suppliers in his area stock largely high-copper products.

His herd’s copper-deficiency symptoms have disappeared since starting the supplements, he said.

The province has also flagged nitrates, given the dry year. Provincial staff are reminding producers that nitrates are cumulative in both water and feed, and that high nitrates in water may tip rations with borderline feeds over the safety threshold.

Time to test

The province is urging producers to test their water, something that few producers are in the habit of doing regularly, given that Manitoba has not typically suffered the drought concerns seen farther west.

Clemence also warned producers not to rest on old tests done on water in the farmyard, since that could vary greatly from dugout water quality elsewhere on the farm. She pointed to potential nutrient leaching from fertilizers, which could increase nitrates, as well as weather variation year to year.

“Lots of people might have tested their water maybe 30 years ago when they moved to the place and they assume that it’s still the same,” she said. “It may not necessarily be the case.”

There has also been little uptick in producers testing their water, despite several dry years in a row, she said.

Producers can expect to pay about $100 for a test, according to the province. That test covers a range of factors from E. coli and mineral contents to whether it is potable for either humans or animals.

About the author


Alexis Stockford

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.



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