Water is the most important nutrient in animal management. Cattle need access to water of sufficient quality and quantity to meet their physiological needs.
During the winter, special attention must be paid to ensure water availability, access and intake for cattle on pasture. For this reason, relying on snow as the only water source in the winter is not recommended due to risks to animal welfare and productivity.
Concerns with snow as the only water source for cattle include:
Inability to control the quality, accessibility and quantity of snow
As per the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattle, only loose and clean snow is acceptable as a water source. If the snow is hard-packed, ice-crusted, or dirty, it cannot be used instead of water. Snow conditions can vary between geographic areas, even within the same province, so it may not always be an appropriate source of water.
Good quality snow may fall, but it’s of no use to cattle is they cannot access it. Wind may blow the snow into drifts outside of their field or pen.
What if there isn’t enough snow to supply the herd? In general, it takes 10 litres (L) of snow to make 1 L of water. Beef cattle drink up to 66 L of water per day, so cattle would need to consume 10 times this volume in snow to meet their water needs.
Cattle may limit water intake to the point of dehydration if water quality is poor
Reduced water intake can lead to cattle eating less, which will affect growth and performance. Dehydration can also weaken their ability to fight off disease.
Body heat must be used to melt ingested snow
- Cattle with higher energy needs risk losing essential energy when accessing and melting snow. This can worsen cold stress experienced by cattle, and can result in lost growth potential. For this reason, the Code of Practice prohibits snow as the only water source for cattle with higher energy needs, including cattle that are:
- in poor body condition, or
- without access to optimal feed
It can take cattle several days to learn to consume snow as their primary water source
Eating snow is a learned behaviour, and cattle may experience thirst as they adapt.
Although the Code of Practice allows for snow to be used as the only winter water source for beef cattle under certain conditions, it states that these conditions can be highly variable, and can result in risks to cattle welfare if they are not carefully monitored. These conditions include:
- Snow quality and quantity
- Feed quality
- Cattle body condition
- Weather conditions
Therefore, the Code of Practice does not support complete reliance on snow, and requires producers to have a back-up water source.
Snow itself is not harmful for cattle to consume, but does not replace the need for a reliable supply of fresh, unfrozen water during the winter.
There is no perfect winter watering system, but there are many different options that can be used and should be explored to protect the welfare and productivity of the herd. Consult the Winter Outdoor Livestock Watering Factsheet (PDF) for more information. Your regional beef cattle specialist or veterinarian are also great sources for advice.