Changing the Watering Habits of Livestock

Whenever someone says “…those !!#x?!z!! cows are in the creek again ..” , I wonder, “do we have a situation here where we aren’t smarter than the cow ? ”

OK, that’s probably being harsh on the livestock owner, but it is likely that the cow (or horse, or sheep, or …) is merely doing what we are allowing them to do. And in the case of getting a drink of water, thirsty livestock can be expected to go to a creek or stream whenever and wherever they are able to access it.

Direct stream access isn’t necessarily a problem, but if we expect their behaviour may cause an environmental impact (on water quality, habitat, etc) we hopefully can “out-smart” them. To do so we either limit their access to the stream (with fencing, developing access points, vegetation, etc), or we supply water in some preferred, offstream location (with a trough, dugout, etc).

Of course these choices involve an investment of dollars, labour, and some level of management – plus ongoing costs to remain effective. And the old saying “if you’re not monitoring, you’re not managing” means time must be spent to ensure this new management tool is continues to work.

It all adds up to costs to a livestock operation with possibly few production benefits.

But many producers are making these changes; some purely for the environmental reason (“it’s the right thing to do”); others for additional farm or ranch benefits (maintained streambank stability for erosion protection of fields, better water quality for the livestock, better herd control, etc). In some cases, rebuilding livestock areas or constructing new ones may qualify for assistance under farm environmental programs that encourage these watering improvements.

One of the decisions in any offstream watering project is whether or not to fence off the stream. Fencing may be as expensive, or more expensive, than the water system, and will need some annual maintenance. Also fencing can have an impact on wildlife movement, etc, so fencing isn’t always completely “environmentally friendly”. It might be assumed that a fence is a “must”, but factors such as poor footing at a stream, steep access, etc., can give the advantage to a new, properly installed water trough.

To illustrate this, a recent project looked at four different watering situations and installed a water trough in each site without fencing the existing water source.

Project details are available in the Ministry of Agriculture  factsheet # 590.302-3,

Offstream Watering to Reduce Livestock Use of Watercourses and Riparian Areas, which is available online at the Sustainable Agriculture Management Branch publications website.

The four sites were beef cattle feeding or grazing areas. In each case the existing livestock watering was by direct access from an adjacent stream or pond:

  • a late winter feeding area along the South Thompson Rivereast of Kamloops
  •  a winter feeding area along the North Thompson River north of Kamloops
  • a winter feeding area along Campbell Creek south of Kamloops
  • a grazing area at the Laurie Guichon Memorial Grasslands Interpretive Site south of Merritt

Three of the sites chosen were winter areas as this is the time when feeding is concentrated. Under these circumstances, if a low cost (no cost?) stream access is used, it may be an environmental risk (whether cattle, horses, sheep, etc). As winter watering from a stream can be difficult due to freezing conditions, these may be attractive sites for livestock owners to install troughs.

However, a winter offstream water system is also the most difficult and expensive to install, especially on sites remote from the electrical grid for pumping and heating energy. But these may be sites where livestock use of offstream systems could be changed to use troughs offering environmental benefits. As unfenced winter streams may be frozen, and the least accessible or favoured by livestock, these sites may also be the most likely to be successful withouth fencing the original water source.

In other words, these sites should have an environmental benefit and likelihood of changing livestock watering habitats without fencing….given the necessary water system investment.

What was learned from these projects?

First of all, confirmation was made that while cattle are opportunistic (not like humans!), using the most readily available water source, a close site with poor access or footing may not be initially chosen. At one site the trough was installed on the trail to the river. There was about 95% trough use until spring grass greened up enticing cows nearer the river, and with the river now a handy option, trough use fell to 65%.

Secondly, drinking patterns (time of day, herd instinct, etc) may affect whether cattle will “wait-their-turn” at a trough or walk away to drink at a somewhat distant but uncrowded stream. Winter troughs have small drinker openings (to reduce heat loss) requiring cattle to be patient. This is not usually a concern once they know the trough is reliable but it showed that the water trough must have few if any barriers if livestock are to use it instead of a nearby stream.

Experienced herdsman will know these are not breakthrough findings, but these projects confirmed we can “outsmart the cow” by taking advantage of their behaviour. If we provide a water trough sized and located to be their first choice, in many cases we can save the added cost, maintenance, and issues of streamside fencing.

And, using “adaptive management”, a stream can always be fenced at a later date if stream access is still occurring. If only a couple of animals continue using the stream, there are some livestock owners who may even consider such a trait in their fall culling program ……