Improve Herd Health with Abundant Clean Water

Livestock Drinking Dirty Water is Not Good For Herd Health

Humans don’t drink dirty water and neither should your livestock. Aristotle recognized the value of boiling water and burying feces to prevent disease back in 350BC. We’ve been learning ever since.  Just as with human health, herd health improves with abundant clean water.

At Least 50% of All Cattle Diseases are Transmitted Through the Fecal-Oral Pathway

My good friend and large animal veterinarian Dr. Scott Nordstrom told me, “Clearly, at least 50% of all cattle diseases in the Mid-Atlantic states are transmitted through the fecal-oral pathway.”

These diseases include lepto, crypto, scours and mastitis.

Cryptosporidia emerging from their protective "crypts". Photo from the Center for Disease Control website.

Sporidia emerging from their protective “crypts”. Photo from the Center for Disease Control website.

Abundant Clean Water is Essential for the Health of Cattle

Our veterinarian here at Meadowview is Dr. John Wise. He said, “Abundant clean water is essential for the health of cattle. Lepto, E. coli, and mastitis are the main health problems with cattle drinking dirty water.”

Dr. John Wise, large animal vet, beef cattle farmer and co-founder of Westwood Animal in Staunton, VA.

Dr. John Wise, large animal vet, a beef cattle farmer and co-founder of Westwood Animal in Staunton, VA.

Even though there may not be much “peer-reviewed” published research documenting that drinking clean water improves herd health, I believe it is so. I have seen it with my own eyes and many cattlemen have confirmed this through their observations.

Our observations are referred to as “anecdotal” evidence, which means they are not based on scientific research.

Well, as a farmer I don’t need a research project to inform me that clean water is better for livestock than dirty water.

Ninth Generation Farmer Stresses Clean Water for Herd Health

I married a ninth generation farmer; Jeanne Trimble Hoffman, a.k.a. The Princess of Swoope.  She has a lot of experience with cattle.  I call her a cow whisperer.  Her experience with clean water and cattle:   “All four of our herds recieve the same vaccinations (same time, same drugs), and yet the herd that drinks out of a stream consistently does not do as well.  The only difference in these groups is the water source.”

The Princess of Swoope stresses clean water for herd health

Ninth Generation Farmer Jeanne Trimble Hoffman with One of the Girls.


One True Story of Improving Herd Health

We calve in the spring. In addition to the mature cows, we usually have between 15 and 25 heifers that we keep close to the house so we can watch them closely and give assistance if needed.  When a heifer calves we make sure the baby has nursed and can follow its mother.  We then move the mother and her baby to an adjacent field.   The only water in that field used to be a couple of wet weather streams and a pond.

For years, and it happened every year with these calves, they would come down with scours soon after we put them in the “pond” field.   Scours is a condition in young calves that gives them diarrhea. They dehydrate and can die from it. Some say calf scours causes more financial loss in the cow/calf business than any other illness.

We knew the cause could not be the lack of colostrum because we had healthy mothers and calves going into the field. The cause was the pathogen-laden water that they were drinking.

Eventually, we convinced the owner of the field to allow us to fence the cows out of the wet areas and installed a frost-free trough on high ground with good water. We have not had a case of scours in the field since.

My good friend Gerald Garber is part owner of a large dairy farm in Weyers Cave, Virginia,  He said, “There’s no advantage to having cows in a stream. It’s bad for their health, and it pollutes the water”.

Cattle do bad things in streams; they pollute the water, destroy aquatic ecosystems and tear up the streambanks.  Excluding livestock from streams is a high priority for all the states in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.  Livestock exclusion and riparian forest buffers are two important Best Management Practices in the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.

Gerald Garber - Improved herd health by fencing his cows out of this stream

Gerald Garber – Dairy Farmer in Weyers Cave, VA

Eliminate Calving Risk Areas

There are many reasons to keep livestock out of streams and other wet areas.  Herd health is one.  Another is eliminating calving risk areas.  Just about every livestock farmer I know has had a calf perish in a stream or wet area.  Here’s a typical scenario:  Cow has some discomfort in labor, she goes to water, has her baby, the baby cannot stand up because it’s steep and rocky or he gets sucked into the swamp.  Calf dies of exposure.

Lose a calf today… you lose over $1,000.  A fence to keep them out of calving risk areas is good insurance against these types of losses.

To find out more about improving herd health and reducing calf losses give me call or drop by your local Soil and Water Conservation District or USDA office.  There are funds and technical assistance to help you make it work for you and your livestock.


  1. Rich Shockey says:


    It is a no brainer. It is good to quote a vet and other farmers. Keep up the good work.


  2. Pete Kesecker says:


    I remember helping my Dad back in the 1960’s & 70’s to form and pour concrete watering troughs to keep cattle out of streams. He died at 92 last year and was a retired Soil Conservation Service Technician. It’s amazing to me that the message of the value of clean drinking water for cattle/livestock still hasn’t resonated.
    As Rich says, it’s a No Brainer.

    Keep up the good fight/work! Hope you’re doing well!

    Pete K.

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