If you think furnishing an adequate water supply to your cows is the key to managing summer heat stress, you’re right. Well, at least partially right. In addition to offering a good supply of fresh water to drink, you also have to place the water tanks in areas that encourage the cows to drink.

New research at Kansas State University indicates that where you place cow water sources is almost as important as making sure your cows have a constant and ample supply of fresh water.

Supplying cattle with adequate water is the single most important factor in heat stress abatement, says Mike Brouk, Kansas State University extension dairy specialist. “But we’ve documented some interesting facts about where cows drink during the studies we’ve done over the past two years,” he adds. “Cows exhibit different drinking behavior depending on water trough location in a free-stall barn.”

The researchers tracked the drinking patterns of four pens of cattle housed in free-stall barns on three different farms last summer. Here is what they learned after 14 weeks of observation:

1. Provide adequate waterer space per cow.
The standard summer water recommendation says that 15 percent of cattle in a pen should be able to access water at the same time. If you have 100 cows in a pen, that means you need to provide a minimum of 360 linear inches, or 30 feet, of trough space.

You may need to add additional water troughs, as did one of the study farms. They placed portable tanks fed with a garden hose equipped with a float and valve on the outside walls on both sides of the center crossover. These tanks added needed space per cow and eased traffic around the water trough in the center crossover.

Cows drank more uniform amounts of water from the crossover troughs, but cattle drank nearly 9 percent of their total water consumption from these portable troughs.

2. Provide water at the parlor exit.
Cows need a drink after standing around in the holding area and milking parlor, especially during warmer weather. Research indicates cattle provided with water near the parlor exit consume 3 to 5 gallons of water per day, or 10 percent of their total daily consumption, during the summer months at this location.

Producers in northern climates may want to add portable waterers here during the summer if freezing water troughs is a problem in the winter.

3. Provide water in multiple locations
This is especially recommended in areas where cattle go from the feed bunk to the resting area. It was noted on one dairy that 60 percent of the water consumed at crossover troughs was consumed from the water trough nearest the feed bunk.

Adding more water trough locations reduces cow crowding and stress by spreading cattle over a larger area of the barn. “The more water points you have, the more you’ll break up cow congestion,” explains Brouk. “Since we know cows drink the most water from toughs near pen middle-points, it makes sense to increase trough space there.”

Of course, there is a cost involved, but providing additional water trough space in the center crossover or along the outside wall near the center crossover is relatively inexpensive.

Finally, make sure you monitor water troughs several times a day to avoid waterer malfunctions and ensure cleanliness. It’s essential your cows have enough water to help fight the effects of heat stress.