Thursday, 03 August 2017 07:00

Workshops highlight importance of water quality during dry years

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Duncan Spenst of the Water Security Agency speaks about dugout planning and construction during the water quality workshop at Swift Current, July 28. Duncan Spenst of the Water Security Agency speaks about dugout planning and construction during the water quality workshop at Swift Current, July 28. Photo by Matthew Liebenberg

Workshops took place in two southwest Saskatchewan watersheds to inform cattle producers about changing water quality during times of drought and how to deal with degraded water sources that are a result of dry conditions.


The Old Wives Watershed Association hosted a workshop in Hazenmore on July 25 and the Swift Current Creek Watershed Stewards (SCCWS) hosted a similar event at the Southwest Animal Health Centre July 28.
Both watershed organizations held the events in partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture and the Water Security Agency. Free water testing took place at both workshops. Producers were able to bring samples of dugout water, which were tested for total dissolved solids.
“We organized this in a hurry,” SCCWS Executive Director Kevin Steinley said after the Swift Current workshop. “Tom Schwartz from the Ministry of Agriculture contacted me last week and wondered if we should do the same sort of workshop in Swift Current in this area that was organized for Hazenmore down in the sort of south central area, because a lot of our producers were seeing the same concerns that they were down in that area. Given what was going on and water issues it was felt it was important to get the word out to producers what to look for in terms of toxicity in the water.”
According to Steinley the anecdotal information received by SCCWS indicates it is really dry in the Swift Current Creek watershed catchment.
“Some of the reports have said less than one millimetre  of rain,” he mentioned. “We have noticed decreased flows in the creek, lower levels in the creek. In doing some of our testing for the water monitoring program we’ve really noticed lower flows. We unfortunately haven’t had results back yet for some of the testing that we’ve done this week to see if there has been a change in the quality of what’s happening in the creek because of this, but I think we’re expecting to see a concentration of contaminants or minerals and the like in the water in the creek because of the decreased flow.”
There was a number of presentations at the Swift Current workshop. Colby Elford, a regional livestock specialist with the Ministry of Agriculture, spoke about water quality guidelines for beef cattle. He noted a cow needs nine to 21 gallons of water per day. Water intake and quality will affect feed intake, the absorption of other nutrients, and overall productivity, including an animal’s general health, weight gain, milk production and fertility.
He referred to various components that are important to water quality, including total dissolved solids, sulphate, sodium, and nitrates. During the summer months the decreased water quantity as a result of increased consumption and evaporation can result in a concentration of contaminants.
According to Elford the issue of water quality becomes more significant during a drier year, as is currently the situation.
“We’re always concerned about water quality in Saskatchewan because it’s a perennial problem, but as water evaporates, which has been a lot of this year, the contaminants or constituents can be concentrated and they do so much more rapidly when there’s greater evaporation,” he told the Prairie Post. “So that just means on a year like this the problem is accelerated.”
Testing of water sources is a useful way to determine its safety for animals, but these test results only represent a snapshot in time.
“It’s a good representation of the water quality at that moment and it gives an indication of maybe where it could be headed, but it’s not going to tell you where it will be in the future,” he said. “So if you’ve got poor quality water that you need to use, it’s important to test it again. A lot of it is situation specific.So in some situations you may need to test quite frequently, in other situations maybe it’s moderate enough that you may only need to test twice a summer.”
In some cases the best way to deal with poor water quality is simply to find another source of water. Producers with poor quality water resources need to be even more careful during a dry year.
“The data that I have seen in the projects that I have done show that poorer water quality gets worse over the summer,” he said. “So if you’ve got marginal water quality or poor water quality you need to be more careful than someone who is using a good water source or perhaps you have several different sources and some of them are good and some of them are poor and so it will be the poorer sources that would be getting worse throughout the summer.”
The very busy schedule of producers presents the biggest risk to them in dealing with the quality of water on their land.
“Everyone is busy and they’re responsible for a lot of different things and not all of that is water related and so in some cases maybe you’re overwhelmed with other things that need to happen,” he said. “The most important thing would be to be vigilant in a year like this to continue to monitor not only the cattle — the cattle for sure need to be monitored — but also the water sources.”
Dr. Glen Griffin, of the Southwest Animal Health Centre, spoke about signs and symptoms of poor water quality and how it affects animal health and performance.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned here this summer is that water quality can change dramatically throughout a grazing season and to routinely monitor the quality of that water,” he said after his presentation.
The early signs of poor water quality are animals that do not eat or drink enough, and the animals will therefore look gaunt and they may have some diarrhea.
“Those are extremely vague signs and not anything that anybody should just assume that’s from water,” he cautioned. “The beginning of pneumonia looks like that. It’s very non-specific.”
He has not seen any significant increase this summer in the number of sick animals due to poor water quality.
“We’ve seen the occasional neurological animal that may or may not be associated with water quality, but that’s about it,” he said. “I think people are very aware now. Since the big incident in Shamrock everybody is extremely aware and monitoring their cows and their water.”
Both Griffin and Elford referred to the risk of blue-green algae to animals.
This year’s environmental conditions mean it is an issue of increased concern.
“We see cases every year,” Elford said. “It’s a naturally occurring organism in Saskatchewan and it seems as though year to year it will be a different location or different water source where we have issues, but it’s certainly not uncommon. It’s tough to track too. I couldn’t say if it’s increasing over time, but we do have issues every year and it’s more related to nutrients in the dugout and warm temperatures.”
There is no treatment for blue-green algae toxicity and usually a producer will become aware of it when he discovers a dead animal.
“It’s pretty uncommon to see clinical signs associated with blue-green algae toxicity,” Griffin said. “Mostly what you find is dead animals.”
Vigilance is therefore the most effective approach. The first thing to do is to check dugouts frequently.
“These blue-green algae blooms can come on extremely quick” he said. “So we’re talking every other day having a look at your dugout and knowing what blue-green algae looks like and keeping an eye out and watching for it. The other option would be to preventatively treat your dugout with an approved product prior to moving the cattle in.”
Other speakers at the Swift Current workshop discussed topics related to water use. Duncan Spenst of the Water Security Agency spoke about dugout planning and construction. Derek Verheist of Kelln Solar talked about solar-powered options for remote water systems.
Dallas Peters, the SCCWS beneficial management practices technician, spoke about the farm and ranch water infrastructure program.
She noted the application deadlines for this program have been extended from Aug. 1 to Sept. 30, but projects must still be completed by Feb. 15, 2018.
More information about this program is available from the SCCWS at 306-770-4606 or the Ministry of Agriculture at 1-877-874-5365.

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Matthew Liebenberg

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