Providing mineral supplementation via water — NT producer demonstration site

Mater medication unit
A Direct Injection Technologies water medication unit in location on a cattle station in the NT.

A Producer Demonstration Site (PDS) to showcase the recent advances in water medication delivery systems and resulting production benefits has been developed by the Livestock Industries Branch (Northern Territory Department of Industry, Tourism and Trade) in collaboration with DIT AgTech. The aim of Meat and Livestock Australia’s PDS program is to increase the rate of adoption of key management practices and technologies that improve business profitability and productivity.

Earlier water medication system models coupled with a reduced understanding of water quality impacts on nutrient suspension and reactions have been associated with some detrimental effects on animal production, which has led to some pastoralists having reservations about their effectiveness and safety. DIT AgTech have since re-engineered dosing units and re-formulated supplement concentrates to create a more robust system that can withstand variable water quality and is being increasingly adopted throughout northern Australia. Under a controlled commercial situation, this study will demonstrate this technology and document the nutritional, behavioural and productivity impacts in young breeding females in the Northern Territory, building on the existing reports from North Queensland.

The next-generation dispensing units now have real-time software driven fail-safe and reporting mechanisms, substantially reducing the risk of over-dosing stock. The reformulated supplement concentrates, remain in solution for longer and have a higher tolerance of poor water quality. These improvements mean that dispensing units are now installed at central water outlets, such as bore heads rather than directly at each water point, substantially reducing the infrastructure and monitoring requirements per property.

Huge beneficial production impacts are known from overcoming mineral deficiencies in extensively managed beef breeding herds. However, traditional mineral supplements and their delivery to cow herds are often costly and time consuming. Providing supplemental phosphorus (P) to cattle during the wet season using traditional methods is difficult, with paddocks often being inaccessible for weeks on end and many P supplements often being soluble in water, meaning that they need to be kept relatively dry.

An alternative strategy to address this distribution problem is water mediation. However, generally it has been poorly adopted (with some cases of dis-adoption) as it has been considered a high-risk strategy requiring a high level of management and technical skill to maintain, and some have concern that cattle often don’t drink from troughs during the wet season. While delivering sufficient nitrogen (N) in water during the dry season has shown production and cost benefits, the effectiveness of providing sufficient P in water during the wet season in paddocks where surface water is also available is yet to be demonstrated. However, in cases where cattle do access watering points during the wet, a potential benefit of adopting water medication is that, as well as P, additional N can be provided at a cost effective and safe level, which may have some production benefits. To investigate this aspect, this study aims to use GPS collars to monitor the frequency of cattle drinking at both medicated and un-medicated watering points to provide some clarity to the industry as to what extent cattle will still consume water from troughs as opposed to available surface water during the wet season.

Due to the physiological necessity of cattle to drink water proportionately to their body size, water medication can uniformly supply the required minerals to meet the nutritional demands across a mob of cattle. Also, water medication is likely to address other issues related to supplementation such as shy feeders, bullying and supplement palatability and has been found to reduce within-mob variation for performance. Under water medication, the ‘tail-end’ of the mob have been observed to display increased performance, and more similarly to the ‘lead’, reducing overall variation for the mob.

The PDS is in the early stages of implementation in the Katherine region of the Northern Territory and will run until late 2023. As the project progress, keep an eye out for more updates and how producers can get involved!

If you are interested in further details on this project, please contact Elle Fordyce on 0456 752 319.