Ranchers should start planning for what could be a difficult year if drought conditions persist through the growing season. There is likely going to be some reduction in forage production this year even if it does start raining due to the dry conditions last fall. If spring moisture remains below normal there could be significant reductions in forage production for 2021.
Another factor that will be of concern in many livestock operations for the coming year will be the availability and quality of water, especially in pastures and rangeland with primarily surface water for the water source.
Water is an important but often overlooked nutrient. Good water quality and cleanliness can increase water intake and improve livestock production while livestock that only have access to low-quality water will have reduced water and feed intake, resulting in reduced production. As the availability and quality of water declines further, reduced water consumption can result in dehydration, which can be fatal in livestock.
In addition, water always contains some dissolved minerals, which normally may not be of concern. However, as water levels dropped due to evaporation, such as they did last summer, the concentration of these minerals and other impurities in water increases and can become potentially toxic when they reach certain levels. Without any runoff to re-fill surface water sources this spring such as stock ponds, reservoirs and sloughs, water quality should be monitored closely.
Of potential concern are issues such as high levels of total dissolved solids or salinity and sulfates in the water. Other factors may include pH levels, nitrates and microbiological contaminants such as cyanobacteria, more commonly known as blue-green algae.
For more specific information, the NDSU Extension Service has a number of good resources available covering livestock water requirements, livestock water quality, cyanobacteria poisoning and a fact sheet on livestock water testing guidelines that outlines the steps to collect a water sample to conduct a livestock water screening and information on the testing labs in North Dakota that can analyze the samples. Copies of these resources are available at the Williams County Extension office, Williams County Soil Conservation District or can be found online at https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/livestockextension/water .
Many county Extension offices across the state are also participating in a Livestock Water Quality Monitoring Program being conducted by the NDSU Extension Service in which extension agents will help monitor TDS and sulfate levels in livestock water sources during the growing season along with completing a visual assessment for cyanobacteria. Contact your local Extension office for more information and details.
If you do have water sources that would provide livestock with better quality water that may currently be available in a pasture or fresh water but currently don’t have any means of distributing the water, several of the Soil Conservation Districts in this area do have shallow pipeline plows available to rent. These plows can install poly pipe up to two feet in depth and can be used to develop livestock watering systems to provide better quality water and/or improve grazing distribution. Soil Conservation Districts in the area with pipeline plows include Williams, Divide, and Burke Counties.
Natural Resources Conservation Service staff are also available to help design pipelines to ensure the water system meets your objectives and functions properly. For more information, contact your respective NRCS office.