Replacing Water with Clean Snow for Ewes and Beef Cows
Clean snow can be an economical water source for mature Ontario ewes and beef cows. Free-ranging flocks and herds in western North America commonly use snow as their sole source of water in the winter.
Research on Snow as the Water Source
Studies in Alberta have shown that dry pregnant ewes and beef cows
eating snow as a water source experience no disadvantages compared
to those drinking water. Heat produced by digestion and the activity
of feeding melts the snow, bringing the resulting water up to body
temperature. Snow-eating animals graze small amounts of snow throughout
the daylight hours. At least one study has investigated the inclusion
of snow in total mixed rations (TMR) with no ill effect on pregnant
cows. By comparison, where liquid water is available, grazing or
out-wintered animals drink once or twice a day. These large quantities
of water require the animals to use some energy to heat the water
up to body temperature. When comparing the two methods of water
intake, there is no difference in
In the spring, when water was available to all ewes and cows in the studies, milk yield and lamb/calf growth rates were similar between the groups given water all winter and those fed only snow as a water source during the dry period. In studies looking at extended-season grazing in Ontario, cattle have thrived using snow as a primary water source to the exclusion of the frost-free water systems provided.
Managing Snow as Water
Ewes and cows prefer to consume soft, powdery, clean snow when there is no access to water. For ewes, no signs of abnormal behaviour, such as bleating, were observed after 24 hours of providing only snow. Cows had a brief adjustment period of 35 days, but adapted to not having a liquid source of water after that. Once they learn to eat snow, cows can switch quickly from eating snow to drinking water and back again, without becoming stressed. Pasturing an experienced snoweating cow in with cows that have never eaten snow before can help speed the transition. For a successful transition to using snow as the sole water source, provide:
If hard granular, wind-blown snow or trampled and/or soiled snow is the only snow available, supplement it with liquid water. To make snow covered by ice available, drive a tractor over the ice to break through to the powdery snow below. Dry pregnant ewes and beef cows must be healthy and should be maintained in good body condition (3.0 or better in a 15 system) throughout the period they are relying upon snow as their water source. Check animals daily and have a back-up plan for getting liquid water to animals or animals to liquid water if snow conditions deteriorate. If animals continue to be restless after making the switch from liquid water to snow or decrease their feed consumption, the snow quantity or quality may not be adequate.
Without any apparent stress, dry pregnant ewes and beef cows can use clean snow as their sole source of water. This watering alternative may be used for an extended period of time or when there is a disruption of the normal winter water supply. Clean snow is a safe and economical option as a source of water for Ontario sheep flocks and beef cow herds.
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Butcher, J.E. 1973. Snow as the only source of water for sheep. Pages 205209 in H.F. Maryland, Ed. Proceedings of Symposium on Water-Animal Relations. University of Idaho Press, Kimberly, Idaho.
Degen, A.A., and Young, B.A. 1981. Response of lactating ewes to snow as a source of water. Canadian Journal of Animal Science 61: 7379.
Degen, A.A., and Young, B.A. 1990. The performance of pregnant beef cows relying on snow as a water source. Canadian Journal of Animal Science 70: 507515.
Wand, C.M. 2000. (Thesis) Stockpiled perennial pasture for extending the grazing season in Ontario cow/calf operations. Faculty of Graduate Studies, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON.
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