Water and Shade for Cattle in Summer Heat

— Written By and last updated by Patricia Burch
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I have already had the shade discussion with a couple of producers so I thought this would make a good article for the week. If you don’t have any shade for your cattle, and you decide you want some, this will give you time to come up with something. There are portable shades you can buy or you can rig up something fairly inexpensively. Also, if you don’t have shade, your water availability will be even more important. So, the two subjects go hand in hand. Let’s start with water.

A 1200 pound lactating cow will drink 15 to 25 gallons per day and in extreme cases as much as 35 gallons. How many of us have 1200 pound cows? Or even know what our cows weigh? Bred cows and bulls will drink in the range of 12 to 20 gallons. Growing calves and yearling cattle will need 5 to 12 gallons per day depending on their size. Sheep and goats will drink 2 or 3 gallons per day and growing lambs and kids one-half to one-and-one-half gallons. Hogs consume one-half to 6 gallons and horses 5 to 15 gallons per day.

These amounts should be kept in mind when choosing a tank or watering system. At a minimum, it should be large enough to supply 40 to 50 percent of your expected daily needs at one time. Ideally, your tank or trough will supply enough water for 2 or 3 days in one filling. This will provide a cushion in the event of a disaster or breakdown of some sort. Also, be sure your flow or supply to the tank is sufficient to fill the tank in a timely manner.

As a rule, unless the water supply is very close to the herd, all cattle will go to water at the same time. Most cattle will only drink for a short time and then move off to rest or graze. If the lower ranked animals in the pecking order show up to an empty tank, they will leave without consuming enough, or possibly any water.

Finally, be sure that the tank stays clean. Clean water makes a huge difference in consumption and performance. A small amount of Clorox can safely be added to the tank to keep down algae growth if needed. Also, the tank or trough should be the only source of water for the animals. Cattle especially, will drink from the nearest water source. If that happens to be a mud hole, swamp, or pond, that is where they will drink.

I’m often asked the question, “Do cows have to have shade?”  This usually solicits the typical extension answer, it depends. “Depends on what?” you ask. Well, let’s back up a bit before we get to that.

Very little research has been done on brood cows and shade. What little information you will find, probably two or three trials, is probably from Australia about 50 years ago. Most of the more recent research has been done with feedyard cattle. You can find tons of papers that deal with feedyards and shade. The majority of them indicate that there is a performance advantage to offering shade — in most cases, a very slight advantage. Research that has been done with dairy cows indicates a performance advantage in offering them shade as well. Some more recent research indicates that it has a definite effect on reproductive performance in brood cows. On the other hand, many of the papers show little or no advantage to shade citing that the cost of shade is more than the increased income provided by the production advantage.

If you ask the specialists on campus, only one I know of will give you a definite answer. He insists they do not. In fact, he pointed out the fact that the research herd located at the Plymouth facility had no shade. He further points out that if you do offer shade, the cattle just bunch up together in the shade, limiting the cooling effect of the wind. I argue they do the same thing if they are in the sun!

So, getting back to the initial question. Do they have to have shade? Gun to my head, yes or no; probably not. Now I know you are thinking what is with the, “it depends” then?

If you have heat tolerant cattle, Brahman or Senepol influenced, you are not as concerned with shade. These cattle are adapted to hot climates and can handle the heat and humidity. Light colored and red cattle are a little more tolerant of the heat than black cattle as well. The other “it depends” is personal belief. Can you, or your wife, ride by the cows when it is 99 degrees and 90 percent humidity and see them standing in the blazing sun, with their mouths open, tongues hanging out, panting and drooling from the heat and be okay with it. I’m not trying to be a jerk here. I’m simply making a point. If it doesn’t bother you, then you don’t need to give them shade.

Really, the question here shouldn’t be “do they have to have shade.”  We should be asking, “How does it look if they don’t have shade?”  With the growing animal rights/welfare movement, we can’t afford to give those groups any more ammunition. In the eyes of the school child or soccer mom or anyone not educated in animal agriculture, the sight of those cows in the previous paragraph is totally unacceptable and someone will complain.