Sample Management Center




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Understanding your results

For more information about the importance of water quality, read: “The Most Essential Nutrient: Water” by Dr. David K Beede of the Department of Animal Science, Michigan State University.  The report emphasizes basic information about water nutrition of cows and calves, predicting water intake and requirements, evaluation of water quality, factors affecting water intake, and the practical aspects and assessment of water nutrition management in dairy farms.

“The Most Essential Nutrient: Water” by Dr. David K Beede

Below are interpretation tables included in Dr. Beede's paper. 

Average, Expected, and Possible concentrations of analytes for Dairy Cattle

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Measurement Averagea Expectedb Possible problemsc
pH for cows 7.0 6.8-7.5 Under 5.1 or over 9.0
pH for veal calves   6.0-6.4  
---parts per million (ppm, or mg/liter)---
Nitrate as NO3d 34 0-44 Over 100
Calcium 60 0-43 Over 500
Magnesium 14 0-29 Over 125
Potassium 9.1 0-20  
Copper 0.1 0-0.6 Over 0.6 to 1.0
Iron 0.8 0-0.3 Over 0.3 (taste,veal)
Zinc   0-5 Over 25
Sodium 22 0-3 Over 20 for veal calves
Manganese 0.3 0-0.05 Over 0.05 (taste)
Chloride* 20 0-250  
Sulfate 36 0-25 Over 2,000
Total dissolved solids 368 500 or less Over 3,000
Total hardness 208 0-180  
Total bacteria/100 ml 336,300 Under 200 Over 1 million
Total coliform/100 ml 933 Less than 1 Over 1 for calves; over 15-20 for cows

aFor most measurements, averages are from about 350 samples; most samples taken from water supplies in farms with suspected animal health or production problems. 

bBased primarily on criteria for water acceptable for human consumption. 

cBased primarily on research literature and field experiences. 

dShould not be consumed by human infants if over 44 ppm NO3 or 10 ppm NO3-N. 

eIf pollution is from human wastes, fecal coliform should exceed fecal streptococcus by several times. If the pollution is from an animal source, streptococcus should exceed coliform in refrigerated samples analyzed soon after sampling. 

*Free or residual chlorine concentrations up to 0.5 to 1.0 ppm have not affected ruminants adversely.  Municipal water supplies with 0.2 to 0.5 ppm have been used successfully.  Swimming pool water with 1.0 ppm, or 3 to 5 ppm chlorine in farm systems with short contact time have caused no apparent problems for cattle. 

Total Dissolved Solids Guidelines

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Guide for use of waters with different total dissolved solids (TDS) by dairy cattle*
TDS (ppm) Comment
<1,000 (fresh water) Presents no serious burden to livestock. 
1,000-2,999 (slightly saline) Should not affect health or  performance, but may cause temporary mild diarrhea.
3,000-4,999 (moderately saline) Generally satisfactory but may cause diarrhea, especially upon initial consumption.
5,000- 6,999 (saline) Can be used with reasonable safety for adult ruminants. Should be avoided for pregnant animals and baby calves. 
7,000-10,000 (very saline) Should be avoided if possible. Pregnant, lactating, stressed or young animals can be affected negatively. 
>10,000 (approaching brine) Unsafe, should not be used under any conditions

*TDS and salinity are commonly used synonymous terms. NRC (1974)


Printable PDF

Guidelines for nitrate concentrations in drinking water for livestock. *
Nitrate (NO3), ppm Guidelines
0-44 Safe for consumption by ruminants. 
45-132 Generally safe in balanced diets with low nitrate feeds. 
133-220 Could be harmful if consumed over long periods of time. 
221-660 Cattle at risk and possible death losses. 
Over, 661 Unsafe; possible death losses and should not be used as a source of water. 

* NRC, 1974


For more information call Dairyland Laboratories, Inc. at 608-323-2123 or contact us here.