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Study explores link between cows’ water quality, milk production

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Got pure water?

A study to determine what effect quality of dairy herd water has on milk production is being conducted at 100 dairy farms across a six-county region by educators from Cornell Cooperative Extension. Twenty farms each will be surveyed in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties, and the remainder will be in Franklin, Clinton and Essex counties.

Ronald A. Kuck, livestock educator for Jefferson County’s extension, said dairy farmers are submitting water samples and completing surveys to participate in the study, which started this spring. Researchers also are measuring the average daily water consumption of dairy herds using water meters acquired for the study, which was funded by a $22,000 grant from the Northern New York Agricultural Development Program.

Water samples will be tested by Dairy One Cooperative, Ithaca. Results of the study are expected to be published in September.

Dairy herds need to drink quality water — and enough of it — to ensure health and maximum milk production, Mr. Kuck said. But he said farmers often overlook water quality as a key factor in milk production because research on the subject is limited.

“We’ve done a lot of research on how many water stations we need for cows,” Mr. Kuck said. “But there has been very little research on the water that is delivered, and it can be difficult to determine the role of water in poor herd performance. That’s something we need to do more about.”

A recent study of water supplies on Pennsylvania dairy farms conducted by Penn State Extension in the fall of 2012 showed that about a quarter of the 174 farms surveyed had at least one water-quality issue. The average milk production for those farms was roughly 10 percent less than farms with good water quality.

Mr. Kuck said graphs from that study showed that milk production was affected by overall water quality, or high levels of certain minerals, such as manganese and sulfate, in the water supply.

The Pennsylvania study inspired him to lead a similar one in the north country.

“We’re going to graph and summarize the results,” Mr. Kuck said, adding farms also will receive individual reports. “If we have farms that do come up with water-quality issues, we will implement some type of water treatment protocol for them.”

On average, a dairy cow should drink 25 to 30 gallons of water per day for good milk production, Mr. Kuck said. If results show that a dairy herd is not drinking a sufficient amount of water, it could be because of a water quality or availability problem. A high content of certain minerals can create a bitter, metallic taste that deters cows from drinking as much water as they should. Cows also may drink less than they should if there isn’t enough water pressure to ensure adequate supply when demand is high.

Water samples will be tested during the study using the following parameters: pH scale, total dissolved solids, nitrate/nitrogen, iron, manganese, chloride, sodium, sulfate, copper and coliform bacteria.

Rodman dairy farmer Michael A. Northrop, a participant in the study, said he will be interested to learn about the mineral content of well water he uses for his 80-cow herd. He said that Mr. Kuck visited his farm at 20202 Caird Road on Thursday to take samples.

“Water carries a lot of different things and is a huge part of a cow’s diet,” Mr. Northrop said. “No one really pays too much attention to what’s in the water, and I think it’s silly that we don’t. And I think it’s a great idea that they thought to do this study.”

He said Mr. Kuck soon will determine the amount of water the cows are drinking by measuring intake with a water meter.

“That will give some additional information as to whether the cows are drinking a normal amount of water, based on the herd size,” Mr. Northrop said. “And if we were to find it’s significantly lower than what it should be, we might want to be thinking about why.”

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