On the to-do list is checking your ranch’s water situation.

Dan Loy, interim director for the Iowa Beef Center at Iowa State University, reminds cattle producers that proper water supply is essential for herd health.

When temperatures are below 40 degrees, beef cows will consumer roughly 10 gallons of water a day. Once the cows have calves and are lactating, their water requirements will go up to around 12 gallons a day.

Loy says feedlot cattle will drink a lot less (consuming only 5 to 8 gallons) in the winter than the summertime because they aren’t having to actively cool themselves.

Water is the primary element for heating and cooling the body, circulating blood and balancing performance levels.


Cattle can go three to four days without feed, but restrict water for that many days and Loy says you will begin to see drastic negative impacts.

“Cattle won’t eat if they don’t have enough water and that can impact feedlot gains or the health of unborn calves,” says Loy. “Water is very important when cattle are in high nutrient demand.”

As the cattle industry enters into the winter season, Loy says considering your ranch’s winter water plans is time well spent.

He suggests playing out scenarios and asking yourself, “When it is 17 below zero and my main water source is compromised, what is my Plan B?”

Fred Bruning of Bruning Farms and Cattle in Bruning, Nebraska, checks electricity regularly for his cow/calf and small feedlot and watches specifically that watering equipment is in good physical shape, has proper sealing devices and no holes exposed to the elements.

“About the first time it freezes, that’s when I start worrying about them,” he said. “We keep generators on hand. Two years ago, we had an ice storm and were out about a week.”

Loy suggests taking precautionary steps:

  • Having a backup generator on hand
  • Making sure your water source has a large quantity of water and space for 25 cattle to water at one time. “Pasture cattle may only water once a day to every other day,” he explains. “You need to be able to water many cattle at once.”
  • If you are running electrical waterers, ensure they are properly wired and you have spare parts on hand. Loy says stray voltage is a concern with electrical waterers because it may be days before a rancher realizes cattle are not drinking because they are getting shocked.
  • Look into energy-free waterers powered by geothermal or wind power. “Any investment to help reduce those types of winter crises will pay for themselves,” says Loy. He recommends having enough cattle using energy-free waterers to keep them from freezing.
  • Loy does not recommend relying on snow. Even though there is research out of Canada that suggests cattle can survive on snow alone, Loy says it shouldn’t be the first option. “Even though the cattle may be able to survive, it may restrict enough water to affect body function and compromise performance,” says Loy.
  • Check water every day and get into a daily water management routine.

“Mainly at this time of year producers need to be thinking about what could possibly go wrong and then how they can cover that situation so it doesn’t turn into a crisis,” says Loy.  end_mark 


Top: Your water source should have quantity and space for 25 cattle to water at a time. Photos courtesy of Carrington Research Extension Center.