Water is the most important nutrient for livestock and plays a major role in their health, weight gain, productivity, reproduction and efficient use of feed and nutrients.

Animals meet their water requirement from three sources, namely, free water, that is, drinking water, ingestion of water contained in feed and water produced by body metabolism.

The determining factor for poor growth, poor reproductive performance, low milk production and frequent illness is water quality, and so maintaining water quality is important.

Farm animals are particular about the water they drink. A high level of suspended solids in water and an objectionable taste, odour or colour can cause animals to drink less than they should. Odour and taste forming compounds may derive from the decomposition of plant matter, but normally they are a result of the activity of living organisms present in the water. Water with a pH ranging from 6.5 to 8.5 is considered acceptable for animal consumption.

A low pH is undesirable as it may corrode and dissolve metals in the pipes and cause precipitation of medication delivered via water.

Common toxic substances found in water include many inorganic elements, organic wastes, pathogenic organisms, herbicides and pesticides, and their residues. These may be toxic to the animal, cause water to be unpalatable or accumulate in the animal, making it unfit for human consumption.

Toxicity problems are amplified when the forage used by the animal is irrigated with the same potentially toxic water. The planets absorb the salts, thus raising the toxicity risk to the animal. Water can serve as a reservoir for many different disease organisms. Stagnant water contaminated with manure may develop blue green algae, which can poison the livestock and causes tremor, liver damage and death.

Bacteria, especially E. coli, Salmonella and Leptospira, when present in high levels in drinking water can lead to illness. However, even a low concentration of bacteria can cause stress and affect the production levels. The degree of pollution by bacteria is traditionally estimated by measuring the total level of coliforms. A coliform count of over 1/100 ml can cause scours in calves and at higher levels can cause diarrhoea in adults. Other microorganisms such as protozoa, viruses, eggs and cysts of intestinal worms can also affect water quality.

The livestock sector is becoming more aware of the fact that quality water forms a critical part of achieving higher production levels. Measurable improvements in health and performance will be achieved by preventing effluent and chemical contamination.

A version of this article appears in the print on July 8 2021, of The Himalayan Times.