Snow as a Water Source

 Knowledge Nuggets | Fact Sheets | Research Papers

Knowledge Nuggets

  • After a short adaptation period, pregnant beef cows will consume snow in amounts equivalent to the water intake of cows receiving liquid water. Through extensive testing in the early 1980's, the University of Alberta found insignificant differences in cow performance or body stress levels when asked to eat snow as their sole water source.
  • Wintering beef cows are able to consume snow as their sole water source given that the snow is in a form that the cows can easily eat. The snow must be soft and friable so that the cows can lick a significant quantity into their mouths for melting.
  • Once cows are used to consuming snow as their sole water source, they will consume small amounts of snow throughout the day during their free time. Cows can be seen licking snow before, during and after their primary feeding times.
  • Although it takes ten times the amount of energy to melt a gram of snow from it's solid state to it's liquid state compared to heating the similar quantity of a liquid one degree Celsius, the key to energy use difference is found in the rate of consumption. Cows eating snow take all day to do so. Cows drinking cold trough water will consume their daily needs within minutes.
  • Because of the slow and ongoing process of eating and melting snow, cows in effect use their waste heat to melt their snow. Because the melting process is such a slow process, the cow's body temperature never drops below it's critical point. Hence, the body's metabolism never needs to kick in to raise it's temperature as it does when a cow drinks large quantities of near freezing water from a waterer.
  • The best indicator of whether a herd is getting enough water from melting snow is to monitor feed consumption. As long as feed consumption is adequate and consistent from day to day, the cows are getting enough water from the snow. Should feed consumption drastically drop over a short time period, water shortage may be the cause.
  • The biggest stress for cattle eating snow is the transition period. Cattle that have never needed to eat snow and have only consumed water will vocalize to show their discontent. Following a day or two of discontent, the herd soon learns from the early learners that snow can be licked with positive results.
  • Once cattle have learned to eat snow, the transition period is much shorter. Eventually cattle will eat snow without little discontent.
  • Once cattle are accustomed to eating snow, they will often stay out in the fields where the feed is placed rather than walk home for water. The observation is that animals find it easier to eat snow rather that expend the energy to walk home to drink water.
Fact Sheets

Beef Cattle Consuming Snow as a Source of Water - in PDF format

Overwintering dairy cattle: animal health issues - in PDF format

Replacing Water with Clean Snow for Ewes and Beef Cows - in PDF format

Winter outdoor livestock watering: It's all about the energy choices - in PDF format

Research Papers

Average daily gain and water intake in growing beef calves offered snow as a water source - in PDF format

Effects of ingestion of warm, cold and frozen water on heat balance in cattle - in PDF format

Effect of snow as a water source on beef cows and their calf production - in PDF format

Ingestion of snow by cattle - in PDF format

Is Snow a Sufficient Source of Water for Horses kept Outdoors in Water? A Case Report - in PDF format

Lactation and water turnover in ewes relying on snow as their water source - in PDF format

Liveweight and behavioural response in cattle ingesting snow as their water source - in PDF format

Liveweight of individually fed beef cows receiving snow or liquid water - in PDF format

Response of lactating ewes to snow as a source of water - in PDF format

The performance of pregnant beef cows relying on snow as a water source - in PDF format

Will cows eat snow? - in PDF format
  For more information about the content of this document, contact Grant Lastiwka.
This document is maintained by Mary Ann Nelson.
This information published to the web on December 21, 2006.
Last Reviewed/Revised on January 23, 2017.

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