Water requirements of livestock
Learn about daily livestock watering needs when designing a livestock watering system. This technical information is for Ontario livestock producers.
ISSN 1198-712X, Published January 2023
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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 are opting to install water-metering equipment to obtain accurate measurements of water use. If medication is provided through the livestock’s watering system, the meter can ensure proper dose rates.
Milk is composed of nearly 87% water. An adequate supply of quality water for dairy cattle is extremely important. Farmers provide cows with free access to fresh water at all times. The water requirements of lactating cows are closely related to milk production, moisture content in the feed and environmental factors such as air temperature and humidity. The cow’s peak water intake generally occurs during the hours of greatest feed intake.
Table 1 identifies water use by major growth stage of a dairy animal and breaks down the estimated water consumption of a milking cow by its level of milk production.
|Dairy cattle type||Level of milk production (kg milk/day)||Water requirement range||Average typical water use|
|Dairy calves (1–4 months)||N/A||4.9–13.2||9|
|Dairy heifers (5–24 months)||N/A||14.4–36.3||25|
Some studies suggest 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 identifies average daily water requirements of beef cattle.
|Beef cattle type||Weight range||Water requirement range||Average typical water use|
|Feedlot cattle: backgrounder||181–364 kg (400–800 lb)||15–40||25|
|Feedlot cattle: short keep||364–636 kg (800–1,400 lb)||27–55||41|
|Lactating cows with calves||N/A||43–67||55|
|Dry cows, bred heifers and bulls||N/A||22–54||38|
The housing method, growth stage and feeding method used affect the drinking water requirements of pigs. Table 3 gives a breakdown of drinking water consumption by weight range or level of maturity.
|Swine type||Weight range (kg)||Water requirement range||Average typical water use|
|Lactating sow ||N/A||18.1–22.7||20|
The introduction of three-site production and all-in/all-out facilities has altered water usage patterns and peak usage requirements of swine in growout facilities. Pigs in the growing phase are often grouped in segregated rooms or entire barns by age. They are kept in this facility until the target weight is reached by the majority of animals, when the room or barn is emptied and then restocked.
For example, consider that 500 23-kg (50-lb) pigs at the start of a growout cycle will each consume 4.5 L/day. By the end of the growout cycle, the water requirements of these 500 pigs, now weighing 100 kg (220 lb), will have doubled to 9 L/day each. Design the water system for these pigs for the higher value.
The use of wet/dry feeders and liquid feeding systems has reduced the volume of drinking water required because of the higher moisture content in the feed ration and the reduction in spillage of water from these systems. Prior to 1990, it was estimated that approximately 50% of the water supplied to a hog pen in a day was lost as spillage. Today, more efficient feeding systems have cut these losses significantly. Producers have also opted to replace the nipple drinkers in the pen with water bowl–type drinkers.
Horses typically consume 2–3 kg of water per kilogram of dry feed. They drink more in hot weather and while doing strenuous exercise (Table 4).
|Frame size (weight)||Water requirement range||Average water use|
|Small (500 lb)||13–20||16.5|
|Medium (1,000 lb)||26–39||32.5|
|Large (1,500 lb)||39–59||49|
Grazing sheep, particularly in the cooler seasons of the year, require relatively little additional water beyond what they receive through forage. Hot, drier weather will result in increased water intake. Table 5 provides an estimate of water consumed daily by different categories of sheep.
|Animal type||Weight range (kg)||Water requirement range||Average typical water use|
|Gestating meat ewe/ram||80||4.0–6.5||5.25|
|Lactating meat ewe plus unweaned offspring||80+||9.0–10.5||10|
|Gestating dairy ewe/ram||90||4.4–7.1||5.75|
|Lactating dairy ewe||90||9.4–11.4||10.4|
The feed requirements of growing poultry are directly related to bird weight. Water requirements are related to feed consumption and to the air temperature. Over half of the water intake of poultry is obtained from the feed. Automatic watering equipment ensures poultry have free access to water at all times.
Once air temperatures exceed 30°C or (87°F), the expected water consumption can increase by 50% above normal consumption rates. Poultry are unable to sweat as a means of regulating body temperature. Their method of heat control involves increasing the respiratory rate (panting) to expel surplus heat, which results in the release of large amounts of moisture that must be replaced, or the bird will become dehydrated. Table 6 shows an estimate of the daily water consumption of 1,000 broiler chickens at different stages of growth. It also illustrates the effect air temperature can have on their water consumption rates. Use Table 6 to design water systems for broilers. Table 7 shows water consumption by season and can be used for estimating average total annual water requirement for broilers.
|Chicken broiler age (weeks)||Water requirement (L/1,000 birds/day) 21°C||Water requirement (L/1,000 birds/day) 32°C|
|Season||Average typical water use|
|Winter, fall, spring||280|
Table 8 presents an estimate of daily water consumption by other common classes of chickens. Again, temperatures have a major influence on the water consumption rate expected from these other poultry classes. Egg production level will also affect the water consumption of laying hens. It is estimated that laying hens will drink about 4 kg of water per dozen eggs produced.
|Chicken type||Weight range (kg)||Water requirement range||Average typical water use|
Historically, most producers used the bell-style watering system — a circular trough with a gravity-fed reservoir that is connected to a water line — to provide water to growing birds. Advances in poultry watering equipment has introduced a nipple-style watering device that contributes to drinker hygiene and reduces water spillage if properly managed. For cage-reared poultry, such as laying hens, producers are using a cup water device or a trough under the water nipples (Figure 1) in order to reduce water wastage.
Drinking water requirements of turkeys are shown in Tables 9 and 10. Use Table 9 for designing water system capacity and Table 10 for estimating average total annual consumption. Water consumption is significantly influenced by the bird’s size and the air temperature it is exposed to. The age of turkeys on a farm will depend heavily on market factors. Meat turkeys are classified as:
- broiler turkeys (hens) — up to 11 weeks of age
- heavy hens — up to 16 weeks of age
- turkey toms — up to 20 weeks of age
Water consumption of breeding hens kept for egg production is similar to that of heavy hens at 16 weeks.
|Turkey age (weeks)||Water requirement||Water requirement|
|Turkey type||Average typical water use||Average typical water use|
Rabbits, mink and alternate livestock
Limited observed and published data are available for less common livestock. The data presented in Table 11 are general numbers based on estimates provided by producers and extension specialists who work with these alternate livestock. As with other animals, the key factors affecting water intake are likely to be feed intake, feed composition, environmental temperature, animal size and activity.
|Animal type||Weight range (kg)||Estimated typical water use|
|Rabbit — gestating doe||4.5||0.35|
|Rabbit — doe (with litter), prior to weaning||8.5||1.02|
|Rabbit — 6-week fryers||1.0||0.30|
|Rabbit — 12-week fryers||2.3||0.64|
|Mink breeders — males||3.0||0.39|
|Mink breeders — females||1.5||0.29|
|Growing mink — males||2.0||0.26|
|Growing mink — females||1.0||0.19|
The most important factor affecting rabbits’ water intake is environmental temperature. They will drink twice as much water during hot summer weather 30°C (86°F) as they will during more temperate seasons 10°C (50°F). Rabbits on high-fibre or high‑protein diets will tend to drink more water than rabbits on low-fibre or low-protein rations. The high-fibre diets require extra water to moisten the feed and to maintain adequate fluid level in the digestive tract. High-protein rations increase the water requirement because nitrogen from the excess protein is excreted in the urine as urea. The kidney has a limited capacity to concentrate excretory byproducts in the urine, so the more urea excreted by the animal, the more water there is in the urine.
Similar variables affect a mink’s water requirements. Mink are traditionally fed a wet diet (65%–75% water), which will provide 80%–85% of the mink’s daily water requirements. The remaining water needs must be met by drinking water.
While the focus of this fact sheet is on the quantity of water consumed by livestock, water quality is also important to consider, as it has 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.
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
Understanding daily livestock watering needs and providing quality water is key when designing a livestock watering system to optimize animal health.
This fact sheet was written by Daniel Ward, poultry and other livestock — housing and equipment engineer, Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) and Kevin McKague, water quality engineer, OMAFRA.
- footnote Back to paragraph 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.
- footnote Back to paragraph McFarland, D.F. “Watering dairy cattle.” Dairy Feeding Systems Management, Components and Nutrients (NRAES-116). Ithaca, NY: Natural Resources, Agriculture and Engineering Services, 1998.
- footnote[a] Back to paragraph A result of the animals’ environment and management.
- footnote[b] Back to paragraph Typical consumption over a year on a daily basis under average agricultural conditions in Ontario.
- footnote[c] Back to paragraph The average milk production in 2006 for a Holstein dairy cow in Ontario was 33 kg/day.
- footnote[d] Back to paragraph Approximately 15% of the milking-age cows present on a dairy farm could be considered “dry.”
- footnote Back to paragraph Adapted from The Nutritional Requirements of Beef Cattleth revised edition. Washington, D.C.: National Research Council, update 2000.
- footnote Back to paragraph 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.
- footnote[e] Back to paragraph Includes unweaned piglets.
- footnote Back to paragraph Adapted from Nutrient Requirements of Horses. 5th edition. Washington, D.C.: National Research Council, 1989.
- footnote Back to paragraph Groenendyk, S., et al. External balance of water and electrolytes in the horse. Equine Vet 1988; J.20:189–93.
- footnote Back to paragraph Adapted from Nutrient Requirements of Sheep. 6th edition. Washington, D.C.: National Research Council, 1985.
- footnote Back to paragraph North, Mack O., Bell, Donald D. Commercial Chicken Production Manual, 4th edition. New York, NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold. 1990.
- footnote Back to paragraph Adapted from Nutrient Requirements of Poultry. 9th edition. Washington, D.C.: National Research Council, 1994.
- footnote Back to paragraph Adapted from Hybrid Turkeys: Producer Guide. Kitchener, ON: Hybrid Turkeys, 2006.
- footnote[f] Back to paragraph Includes spillage losses (typically 2% or less of total consumption).
- footnote Back to paragraph Adapted from Guide Lapin. Quebec City, QC: Conseil des productions animales du Quebec Inc., 1998.
- footnote Back to paragraph Joergensen, G. Mink Production. Hilleroed, Denmark: Scientur, 1985.
- footnote[g] Back to paragraph Total weight: 4.5 kg for doe plus 8 kits at 0.5 kg
- footnote Back to paragraph National Academy of Sciences/National Academy of Engineering. Water Quality Criteria. Washington, D.C., 1973.