As both a cattleman and manager of one of the country’s largest fish farms, Matt Flynt is responsible for hundreds of cattle, millions of fish, thousands of acres of water, and miles of levees in central Arkansas. His livelihood relies on water quality. So when it comes time to let the cows drink, he can’t afford to muddy the waters.
" Over time, cattle with unrestricted access will destroy a pond."
Although it may be a common occurrence on farms across the country, allowing cattle to loaf in the pond while getting a drink is neither good for the cows nor the body of water. Prolonged, unlimited access can not only destroy fish habitat but also reduce pond volume and negatively impact animal performance.
"From an animal health and environmental perspective, it's not an ideal situation," says Dirk Philipp, associate professor of animal science at the University of Arkansas. "If livestock are allowed to stand around in the water, they will urinate and defecate there. Whatever comes out the back end is right back in front of them to take up again."
Philipp says cattle drinking tainted water can ingest both parasites and pathogens that can lead to disease. Foremost among the related ailments is leptospirosis, an infectious bacterial disease.
"Fever, malnourishment, anorexia and possible calf abortion are all possible symptoms from drinking bacteria-contaminated water," he says. "Parasitic trematodes, or liver flukes, can also cause liver damage and lower fertility."
Coccidiosis, caused by a protozoan parasite, may cause acute diarrhea, weight loss and even death. Philipp says this disease alone is estimated to cost the U.S. cattle industry $100 million annually.
But troubles don't end with issues of tainted water. Standing in a pond for extended lengths of time can soften a cow's hooves, which can lead to injury or disease. Foot rot is a common problem of lingering livestock. "Softened hooves are easily damaged, leading to cracks and crevices that can serve as an entry point for pathogens such as fusobacteria," Philipp adds.
Losses only begin with decreased herd performance. Over time, cattle with unrestricted access will destroy the pond.
"Most of the time, you have way more cows than you have acres of water," says Flynt, past president of the Arkansas Forage and Grassland Council. "What you typically see is a lot of erosion around the pond bank and a lot of mudding up along the shoreline. That's going to cause water-quality issues and cause it to silt in. It will get more and more shallow, reducing the life of the pond."
The best way to protect both the livestock and the pond is to limit the herd's access to the water altogether. An electric fence — constructed at least 12 feet away from the shoreline to provide adequate space for vehicle access or recreational activities — is a cost-effective solution. Fencing off a pond entirely and drawing water to a stock tank, tire tank or freeze-proof tank will eliminate damage to shorelines and dams by hooves and overgrazing. It also will prevent excrement from entering the pond, improving the quality of the water and potentially resulting in greater livestock gains.
Depending on the pond's size and location on the landscape, complete exclusion may require more investment in pumps, piping and other infrastructure. Philipp says cost-share funds may be available through the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the local soil and water conservation district to help offset these expenses.
An alternative to complete exclusion is to construct a limited access floating fence with a heavy-use area designated for watering cattle. While a number of designs exist for floating fences, Philipp recommends using lengths of 2-inch-diameter PVC pipe topped with 12.5-gauge high-tensile electric fence wire or polywire.
"The width of the fence varies with the size of the herd," he explains. "For a small herd, you want at least 20 feet of access; double that width to 40 feet for herds up to 200 cows."
The distance the access area extends into the pond will depend on the slope of the bank. "A slope of about 30 percent is ideal," Philipp says. "You want the access point to extend into the pond to a depth of at least 3 feet but no more than 5 feet."
Along with the floating fence, producers should construct a heavy-use area to handle increased livestock traffic at the access point. A 6-to-12-inch layer of rock covered with gravel and supported with a geotextile fabric will maintain a firm base.
"The cattle don't like to stand around in the gravel," Philipp says. "They'll walk in, get a drink and walk out."
Flynt agrees. "They don't like standing on those sharp rocks, that's for sure," he says. "I have one floating fence limited access point that I call the 'two-holer.' It's got a pipe down the middle so you can water two different paddocks from the same heavy use area."
Watering situations vary greatly across a farm, and Flynt employs a combination of solutions, including wells, gravity-fed tire tanks and limited access watering directly from ponds. "And I do have ponds that aren't fenced off, but they're in smaller paddocks that the cows aren't in year-round," he adds.
He says that producers who have allowed cattle in their ponds for years might question the need to fence cows out of the water now, assuming it's caused no issues.
"Well, they've probably had cows that got sick and died from something related to water quality, but they didn't know that was the cause," Flynt says. "I'm not going to say you need to fence off every pond. It takes time and money. But once you do get the cows out, most of the time, you'll see a cleaner pond."
The University of Arkansas offers a free publication on designing watering systems for cattle ponds. Download here.