September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.

What's in your water?

Primus, Smith battle water quality problems on their dairy farms
(photo by Jennifer Burggraff)
(photo by Jennifer Burggraff)

By By Jennifer Burggraff- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

BLUFFTON, Minn. – When it comes to his dairy herd, 2011 has brought anything but good fortune for Bluffton, Minn., dairy producer, Harvey Primus. In fact, since the New Year, Primus has lost a total of 16 cows – some being shipped due to feet and leg problems and weight loss, among other things, and others simply dying.

“I thought I was turning into an idiotic dairy farmer,” Primus said. “I was ready to give up.”

What Primus couldn’t pinpoint was the cause of his problems, until he had his water tested. Then things started falling into place.

Primus was dealing with the repercussions of high manganese – a naturally occurring mineral – in his water.

“My cows just kept dying,” said Primus, who has been dairying on his home farm since 1975. “Some had bad legs; some would get skinny before calving, would calve and then die four days later; one had pseudomembranous colitis – an infection in the colon. She was treated by the vet and died the next morning.”

Primus’s herd production dropped to under 16,000 pounds and his SCC skyrocketed.

“I was losing $2 per hundredweight for having an 800,000 SCC,” he said. “No matter what I did, if a cow got mastitis I couldn’t clear it up.”

After losing his eighth cow in a period of just a few months, Primus had his farm tested for stray voltage in late April. But, that wasn’t the answer.

“I was told I had the best farm they had ever tested,” Primus said.

Finally, out of frustration, he called his nutritionist. The nutritionist returned his call the following day, suggesting Primus’s problems were due to manganese toxicity from his water. Primus called Traut Wells of Waite Park, Minn., to test his water and, sure enough, his manganese level registered at 1.052 ppm (parts per million). With the accepted manganese tolerance level at 0.05 ppm, Primus’s was 21 times too high.

Manganese is one of many naturally occurring minerals found in the earth and, therefore, water.

“You can blame the glaciers,” said Traut Wells water treatment division manager, Jim Gruenke. “Glaciers left deposits of different minerals [which are now found] in water.”

The presence of manganese itself is not necessarily detrimental, Gruenke said. However, if the level of manganese in water exceeds the tolerance level, it can make the water unpalatable. 

“Cows are like people. If the water doesn’t taste good, they won’t drink it,” he said.

Lack of sufficient water intake is the main cause of problems associated with high levels of manganese, as well as other minerals, said Dr. Jim Bennett of Northern Valley Dairy Production Medicine Center in Plainview, Minn. 

“A lot of things found in water, if you have high levels, can affect intake,” Bennett said. “As you put more solids into water, there is a possibility that animals will drink less.”

Other common water issues Gruenke has dealt with on dairy farms include iron- and sulphur-related bacteria and high iron levels, of which Adams, Minn., dairy producer, Rick Smith, can attest to. Since last fall, Smith, who milks over 200 cows in partnership with his brothers, Joe and Randy Smith, has been battling low milk production, which he believes is caused by high iron in his water.

“The cows look good but they are not milking,” Smith said. “Usually [the tank average] is in the high 80s or 90s. Last fall it was at 73 pounds with three-times-a-day milking.”

Like Primus, Smith tested for stray voltage after watching his cows lap at the water. He also put a water meter in his tank to measure the cows’ water intakes. Neither proved to be out of line.

When he sent a water sample in, however, the results came back with iron at three times the accepted level. But that wasn’t the only problem. His manganese level was 10 times too high.

Along with decreased palatability, Bennett said high iron in water in the ferrous, or soluble, form can cause oxidative stress, resulting in damaged cell membranes and immunity problems. Iron-loving bacteria, he said, can also produce a slime, further reducing palatability.

Smith had a peroxide system installed on his farm to remedy the problem.

“I could tell [a difference] within three hours, but our butterfat also went from 3.6 to 2.9,” Smith said. “We lost money and components.”

He discontinued the peroxide treatment; he plans to retest his water and look into other treatment options this summer.

If water quality is a concern, Gruenke suggested talking with a dairy expert or a water expert who can look into the problem and give guidance on the situation.

“Have your water tested. That’s the number one thing,” he said, adding that relying on a professional lab to handle the testing is important. 

Gruenke also recommended doing as Smith did by metering the water intake of the cows.

“If they are only drinking a fraction of what they should be drinking, that’s a big red flag,” he said. “If they have an average water intake of 20 to 25 gallons, that’s not enough to get production. Then you need to ask why they are not drinking the water.”

If water intake is low, Gruenke said it may not necessarily mean a water quality issue but could be caused by another factor, such as stray voltage. For this reason, testing is imperative. If high levels of minerals are found, chances are those minerals have always been present.

“It’s not often we see water quality change,” Gruenke said.

Gruenke said Traut Wells handles water quality problems on a case-by-case basis. Methods of treatment depend on what water quality problem is present and can include oxidization and filtration or bleaching systems.

“We customize [treatment systems] for each farm’s needs,” Gruenke said. “Usually the turn around on a farm is pretty good.”

Primus had a filtration system installed on May 18 that treats not only the water his cows drink, but the water that goes to the house he shares with his parents, Al and Hildegarde Primus, as well. With his cows now on pasture and drinking from another water source, he doesn’t expect to see the results of that system until fall.

“I don’t foresee any improvements until the cows are in a new lactation and on new feed,” he said.

However, he has had no additional cow deaths since installing the system.

Primus advised dairy producers to check their water supply, especially if they are having issues with nutrition, immunity and high SCC.

“It probably doesn’t take [a manganese level] 21 times too high to cause problems,” Primus said.

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