Historically, drinking water for ruminants has been a relatively inexpensive and abundant resource, but this is changing in both developed and developing countries.
Despite the great amount of attention paid to other essential nutrients by animal scientists and livestock farmers in the last century, water nutrition and water quality have not been adequately examined. Even today, drinking water is seldom considered a potentially limiting factor for the productivity and health of ruminants. Farmers rarely have information about the 2 major initial factors for assessing the adequacy of water nutrition on any farm: how much the animals are drinking and what the quality of that water is.
Although livestock will never rival humans for the world's supply of potable water, they do use large amounts in some production systems. Nonetheless, ruminants also hold a unique niche in the production of food and other tangibles for humans by their ability to consume fibrous and lower quality feedstuffs (e.g., forages and by-products) not utilizable as food directly by humans and other nonruminants, and to convert these feeds into high-quality proteins, vitamins, fats, and energy for humans. This unique capacity of ruminants very much depends on sufficient quantities of water for maintenance, digestion, absorption, and assimilation.
Should potable drinking water become scare in some areas of the world, domestic ruminants may be forced to consume poorer quality water containing anti-quality factors. If we are to sustain the increasing demand for animal products and improve the standard of living globally, the conservation and recycling of clean drinking water on ruminant farms will be critical. Otherwise, the only alternative may be widespread use of water treatment systems.
Doubtless, ruminant farmers must improve their management by carefully using and conserving the available clean water for their animals. The future viability of ruminant production systems depends on it. Through more efficient use of water, farmers can maximize animal performance and health while simultaneously optimizing on-farm use (from irrigation for feed crop production through recycling and conservation) to reduce the water footprint of each farm.