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Watering System Design

Posted: June 17, 2014

Water makes up 87% of the milk given by a cow, and drinking water satisfies 80 to 90% of a cow’s total water needs. Consider how and when cows drink to create a watering system that ensures every cow gets as much water as she will drink.
Figure 1. Water intake at various levels of milk production.

Figure 1. Water intake at various levels of milk production.

Water makes up 87% of the milk given by a cow, and drinking water satisfies 80 to 90% of a cow’s total water needs. So why not give them all they will drink? A lactating cow can consume 20 to 40 gallons per day of fresh water depending on production, as shown in Figure 1.

First, let’s look at what a cow needs from a properly designed waterer. Cows like to insert their muzzle 1 to 2 inches into the water with their head inclined at 60 degrees to drink. They need about 95 square inches of surface area to drink from, and can drink 3 to 5 gallons per minute. However, a cow only spends about an hour per day drinking, mostly after eating and milking.

So a waterer needs to provide the correct surface area, at least 3 inches of water depth, be at the correct height, and have a flow rate of 3 to 5 gallons per minute per cow. There also needs to be enough waterers available for a cow to get a drink whenever she wants.

That means in freestall or loose housing waterers should have a large open surface area to drink from, present water 24 to 32 inches above the floor, have a minimum depth of 3 inches, have a capacity of 30 to 50 gallons, and since two or more cows can drink at once it needs a minimum fill rate of 10 gallons per minute. As for how many waterers you need, I don’t think you can have too many. The rule of thumb is to provide 3 inches of accessible waterer perimeter per cow in the group, with at least two per group, and placed a maximum of 60 to 80 feet apart.

Also consider installing a water reservoir. A reservoir can help buffer the impact of a large number of cows drinking at once, such as when returning from the parlor or from pasture. By using a reservoir even a medium capacity well can provide for a large number of cows.

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Watering System Design

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Contact Information

John Tyson
  • Agricultural Engineer, Educator
Phone: 717-248-9618