Water requirements for cattle

The daily water requirements and intake by livestock varies considerably according to class of stock, production status, age and condition of the animal, dry matter intake, quality and nature of feed, climatic conditions, and the quality of the water.

In northern Australia hot summer temperatures significantly influence daily intake of water. A rise of 10ºC (e.g. from 25ºC to 35ºC) can almost double daily consumption, particularly if there is high humidity as well. For example, at 25ºC dry cows may drink 40L but this will increase to 70L at 32ºC, and higher during very hot conditions. Lactating cows may have a 30% higher daily water intake than dry cows. The requirements for Bos taurus cattle in hot conditions will be higher than those of Bos indicus cattle.

The following table is a guide to daily consumption of various classes of cattle and sheep.

Type of livestock Average daily consumption (L) Peak daily consumption (L)
Dairy cows in milk 70 85
Dairy cows dry 45 60
Beef cattle 45 60
Calves 22 30
Nursing ewes on dry feed 9 11.5
Mature sheep on dry pastures 7 8.5
Mature sheep on irrigated pastures 3.5 4.5
Fattening lambs on dry pastures 2.2 3
Fattening lambs on irrigated pastures 1.1 1.5

Source: Adapted from Burton (1965).

Water quality for cattle

The quality of water livestock consumed directly impacts on daily water intakes, and can in turn impact on overall performance. In some cases poor water quality will lead to health problems or reduced production. A water sample collected for analysis needs to be sampled and processed correctly – see Sampling your water supply on this page.

The suitability of water for stock depends on a number of factors: type, age and condition or health of the animal, climate, time of the year, composition of pastures and feed, distance walked, and other water sources available. Accordingly the figures below are a guide only.

Total dissolved solids (TDS)

TDS is total dissolved salts present, and some organic compounds. TDS is sometimes expressed as total dissolved ions (TDI), which doesn’t include organic compounds.

  • If TDS >2,000mg/L – this level will increase thirst and the daily intake of water.
  • If TDS >2,500mg/L – specific salts may cause a toxic effect (see paragraph below).
  • If TDS 4,000–5,000mg/L – stock may initially be reluctant to drink.
  • If TDS 5,000mg/L to 10,000mg/L – potential loss of production, decline in animal health and condition (Source: Adapted from Burton 1965).

Even if the salinity or TDS is within limits, specific ions such as calcium, fluoride, magnesium, sulphate, calcium and nitrates can cause health problems. These problems include loss of condition, scouring, teeth decay and gastrointestinal problems. For example, excess fluoride can occur in bore water and can be a problem particularly for young stock, but also for human health.

The concentration of salts in water can increase through evaporation. Some water quality problems can be overcome by mixing poor quality water with water of a better quality. Advice needs to be sort first.

Queensland’s natural waters, particularly groundwater and artesian supplies, contain variable amounts of salts. For this reason it is wise to have a sample analysed.


Levels up to 1,000mg/L can be tolerated by cattle.

However the calcium level tolerated may be less than this if:

  • dietary phosphorus levels are inadequate
  • there are high concentrations of sodium and magnesium are present
  • calcium is added to the diet as a dietary supplement.

High concentrations of calcium in water and the general diet can cause phosphorus deficiency by interfering with phosphorus absorption in the gastrointestinal tract.


There is insufficient information to set a guideline value. High levels of magnesium are usually associated with high TDS values. High doses will cause scouring and diarrhoea in cattle.


No adverse effects are expected if the concentration of sulphate is below 1,000mg/L.

Between 1,000mg/L to 2,000mg/L adverse effects (e.g. diarrhoea) may occur in:

  • young animals
  • lactating animals
  • dry hot weather when water intake is high.

Adverse effects may cease once cattle become accustomed to the water.

Levels greater than 2,000mg/L may cause chronic or acute health problems.

Where dietary copper and molybdenum are low, levels of sulphate in stock drinking water need to be considered more carefully.

Nitrate and nitrite

Both nitrate and nitrite occur naturally in waters, although nitrate predominates.

Both can cause toxicity with nitrite being 10–15 times more toxic.

High levels are usually associated with contamination from fertilizer, animal manures, or waste material.

Nitrate concentrations less than 400mg/L should not be harmful to animal health.

Water containing more than 1,500mg/L nitrate is likely to be toxic, as is water containing more than 30mg/L nitrite.

Nitrite concentrations in feed should also be considered.


Fluoride levels in bore water can be an issue, such as those from the Great Artesian Basin. Groundwater levels are generally low.

For animals fed diets containing fluoride, such as salt licks, drinking water levels should not exceed 1mg/L.

Concentrations greater than 2mg/L may be hazardous to animal health.


The maximum acceptable level of chloride in water for beef cattle is 4,000mg/L.

There are a number of other toxic elements potentially found in stock water which can impact on animal health. These include aluminium, arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury.

Other factors which should be considered for stock water analysis include:

  • pH (range should be 6.5 to 8.5 for beef cattle)
  • cyanobacteria (blue-green algae)
  • pathogens and parasites
  • water turbidity
  • pesticides.

Sampling your water supply

A water analysis is often essential before water is used for stock, domestic, or irrigation purposes. The accuracy of a water analysis is very much dependent on the sampling method used and the time elapsed between sampling and analysis.

Collecting the sample

The most suitable bottles to use are made from polyethylene or glass and should hold one litre. Polyethylene bottles are available from water testing analysts, chemists and certain retail outlets. Soft drink, milk or chemical containers are not acceptable because residues are likely to remain in them, even if they have been washed out.

The bottle should be cleaned prior to sampling by rinsing the bottle three times in the water to be sampled (except in the case of sterile bottles used for bacteriological sampling). The bottle should be filled to the top with as little air as possible remaining, and sealed tightly. All samples should be properly labelled with details of the source, date of sampling, your name and address and the intended use of the water.

Surface water samples

For flowing water the sample should be collected from mid-stream and mid-depth. This should ensure that the sample is representative of the entire flow in a stream or channel. A note should be made of the condition of flow in the stream (volume and/or velocity of flow, etc.) as this often influences the quality of water at different times of the year. For still waters such as lakes, reservoirs and dams, samples should be taken away from the water’s edge and at a depth that represents normal pumping depth. Stratification (i.e. thermal and chemical layering of the body of water due to seasonal changes and chemical content) can significantly affect results.

Groundwater samples

When sampling water from bores and wells, the first step is to remove the ‘stale’ water that lies inside the casing. This ‘stale’ water may not be representative of the water from the aquifer. It is usual to remove about three times the volume of the well or casing storage before taking the sample. Take note of the pumping rate, the water level and the time of sampling after pumping has started. Some bores may draw water from several aquifers. Should samples from different depths be required, specific techniques must be used. You should refer to your water analyst for these techniques.

Where to send samples

  • Private companies. Samples collected for any purpose can be sent directly to private companies for analysis. Details of private companies are located in the yellow pages of the telephone book, or online.
  • Landcare and catchment care groups. Some of these groups offer water testing services. This testing is often linked to projects on monitoring water quality in local water courses.
  • Local authorities. Not all local authorities offer a water testing service. Where this service is available it may be confined to domestic use. Contact your local authority for more detail.

Queensland Health will test the suitability of water for human consumption. This test includes bacteriological and chemical analysis. The testing is done by Queensland Health Scientific Services, Coopers Plains, Brisbane. Arrangements must be made prior to the sampling being carried out. Further information is available by phoning 07 3274 9111.

Water analysis interpretation

Private companies may provide a water analysis and interpretation service.

Alternatively further information on analysis of water for livestock can be found in the ‘Australian and New Zealand Guidelines for Fresh and Marine Water Quality (2000) Volume 3 Chapter 9 Primary Industries 9.3 Livestock drinking water guidelines’.

More information

Felicity Hamlyn-Hill, formerly Queensland Government.