Water requirements of livestock


Source: Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs

Fact SHeet Written by: Daniel Ward – Engineer, Poultry and Other Livestock – Housing and Equipment/OMAFRA; Kevin McKague – Engineer, Water Quality/OMAFRA

Providing enough quality water is essential for good livestock husbandry. Water makes up 80% of the blood, regulates body temperature and is vital for organ functions such as digestion, waste removal and the absorption of nutrients. Understanding daily livestock watering needs is key when designing a livestock watering system.

The daily water requirement of livestock varies significantly among animal species. The animal’s size and growth stage will have a strong influence on daily water intake. Consumption rates can be affected by environmental and management factors. Air temperature, relative humidity and the level of animal exertion or production level are examples of these factors. The quality of the water, which includes temperature, salinity and impurities affecting taste and odour, will also have an effect. The water content of the animal’s diet will influence its drinking habits. Feed with a relatively high moisture content decreases the quantity of drinking water required.

Given that drinking water needs are species-, farm- and management-specific, many producers today are opting to install water-metering equipment to obtain accurate measurements of water use. If medication is ever provided through the livestock’s watering system, the meter can be used to ensure proper dose rates.

Beef Cattle

Few studies have been undertaken to fully document water use by beef animals. Those that have been completed suggest that the water requirement of beef cattle is closely tied to whether the animals are lactating, the moisture content of their feed ration and environmental factors such as air temperature and relative humidity.

Grazing trials have demonstrated that weight gains of pastured beef animals are higher if a water supply is provided for the cattle in the grazing area, even though the animals are receiving a lot of water from their diet.

Table 2 provides average daily water requirements of beef cattle.

Table 2. Water Consumption by Beef Cattle (3)
Beef Cattle Type Weight Range
Water Requirement Rangea
Typical Water Useb(L/day)
Feedlot cattle: Backgrounder 181-364 (400-800 lb) 15-40 25
Feedlot cattle: Short keep 364-636 (800-1,400 lb) 27-55 41
Lactating cows with calves 43-67 55
Dry cows, bred heifers & bulls 22-54 38

a A result of the animals’ environment and management.
b Typical consumption over a year on a daily basis under average agricultural conditions in Ontario.

Water Quality

While the focus of this Factsheet is on the quantity of water consumed by livestock, water quality is also important to consider as it can have an impact on the volume of water consumed. Foul odours or tastes, for example, may discourage animals from drinking. Depending on the cause, poor water quality can affect herd health, possibly leading to animal death and economic loss to the producer.

Assess water quality at both the point of use and the source. The contamination of watering devices by dust, spilled feed and fecal matter can lead to the growth of slime. Eventually slime organisms die and decay, creating foul odour and/or tastes.

Typically, poultry is more sensitive to the taste and mineral content of the water than other livestock types. Water treatment systems are increasingly being used in poultry barns. The treatments normally focus on overcoming many problems with iron or minerals in the source water, killing bacteria and eliminating slime/scale from forming in the water lines and on the waterer. If chlorine is added during treatment, the target residual chlorine level in the delivery system is between 3-5 parts per million.

The tolerance to minerals (total salts) in water supplies varies by animal species, with poultry being most sensitive, hogs moderately sensitive and ruminant animals least sensitive. In general, a total soluble salt content of less than 1,000 mg/L is considered a low level of salinity suitable for all types of livestock.(13)Salt contents between 1,000 mg/L and 3,000 mg/L are satisfactory for all types of livestock but may cause watery droppings in poultry or diarrhea in livestock not accustomed to this salt level. Salt levels above 3,000 mg/L are not recommended for poultry and are more likely to result in cases of livestock refusal.(13) Salt levels above 5,000 mg/L are not recommended for lactating animals. Avoid levels above 7,000 mg/L for all livestock.


  1. Adams, R.S., et al. “Calculating drinking water intake for lactating cows.” Dairy reference manual (NRAES-63). Ithaca, NY: Northeast Regional Agricultural Engineering Service, 1995.
  2. McFarland, D.F. “Watering dairy cattle.” Dairy feeding systems management, components and nutrients (NRAES-116). Ithaca, NY: Natural Resources, Agriculture and Engineering Services, 1998.
  3. Adapted from The nutritional requirements of beef cattle. 7th revised edition. Washington, D.C.: National Research Council, update 2000.
  4. Froese, C., and Small, D. “Water consumption and waste production during different production stages in hog operations.” St. Andrews, Manitoba: Manitoba Livestock Manure Management Initiative. 2001.
  5. Adapted from Nutrient requirements of horses. 5th edition. Washington, D.C.: National Research Council, 1989.
  6. Groenendyk, S., et al. External balance of water and electrolytes in the horse. Equine Vet 1988; J.20:189-93.
  7. Adapted from Nutrient requirements of sheep. 6th edition. Washington, D.C.: National Research Council, 1985.
  8. North, Mack O., Bell, Donald D. Commercial chicken production manual, 4th edition. New York, NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold. 1990.
  9. Adapted from Nutrient requirements of poultry. 9th edition. Washington, D.C.: National Research Council, 1994.
  10. Adapted from Hybrid turkeys: producer guide. Kitchener, ON: Hybrid Turkeys, 2006.
  11. Adapted from Guide lapin. Quebec City, QC: Conseil des productions animales du Quebec Inc., 1998.
  12. Joergensen, G. Mink production.Hilleroed, Denmark: Scientur, 1985.
  13. National Academy of Sciences/National Academy of Engineering. Water quality criteria. Washington, D.C., 1973.


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