Water for Small Ruminants

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With the heat of the summer beating down on us, this is the perfect time to discuss water requirements for your small ruminants. During the hot, humid days we experience in North Carolina, sheep and goats need more water than you might expect for evaporative cooling.

In general, small ruminants consume between ¾-1.5 gallons of water a day, and water consumption usually increases 40% when comparing summer drinking habits to winter ones. Heat stress can be extremely hard on livestock, so it’s important that your animals have access to shelter or shade, and clean, fresh water. Signs of heat stress include: bunching in the shade, slobbering or excessive salivation, panting, lack of coordination, trembling and many more. Poor breeding efficiency and reduced milk production are common effects of livestock heat stress.

The suitability of water for livestock use depends on several aspects, including water quality, environmental factors, and animal factors. Water quality includes salinity (dissolved salts in the water), acidity, toxic elements and algae. Surface waters are generally low in dissolved salts compared to other water sources. Salinity will increase the intake of water by animals, to balance everything out. Acidity is important if your animals are sensitive, pH changes can influence the digestive system of small ruminants. Acidic water (pH below 6.5) or basic water (pH above 8.5) may be a cause for depressed appetite and loss of production in your animals. Another factor that may influence water quality is the presence of toxic elements or compounds; iron, magnesium, arsenic, lead, mercury, and selenium are compounds that may reach toxic levels. The NCDA &CS labs have a water solution test that can show you some of this information; it is a simple form and $5 fee. http://www.ncagr.gov/agronomi/uyrsoln.htm

Water suitability is influence by environmental factors, in particular the temperature the animal is exposed to. When it’s hot, your sheep and goats will use more water for evaporative cooling. The amount of water your animals drink may also depend on the water temperature itself; most small ruminants prefer water that is at, or below, body temperature. During a drought, your animals require more water because their normal forage supplies are weakened and drier. So moisture they normally would get from grazing isn’t there in the same levels. It’s important to realize what’s going on with your pastures and your animals.

The animal factors mentioned above include the physiological status of your animals, their breed differences and several others. Young animals, heavily pregnant or lactating animals may be a bit more finicky with the water they will drink. It’s important to note the water consumption of your animals and what they need.

You should consider the quality and amount of water your livestock need during every season, but it is especially vital in the summer. Please contact your local veterinarian or the extension office if you have any questions regarding water for your sheep and goats!