USask scientists investigating effects of sulphates on cattle health

CLAVET, Sask. – High sulphate levels found in the drinking water of cattle across the Prairies are being investigated by livestock researchers at the University of Saskatchewan using the unique-in-North America metabolism barn at the university’s Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence.

The catastrophic results of poor quality water made headlines in the summer of 2017 when 200 cattle died in a pasture near Shamrock, Sask., southwest of Moose Jaw. Researchers determined that the extremely high level of sulphates (SO42-) in the animals’ drinking water contributed to their deaths.

The research into how to address potentially fatal sulphate levels would not be possible without the LFCE’s new Saskatchewan Cattlemen’s Association Metabolism Barn and adjacent laboratories.

“While we call it a ‘barn,’ this really is a lab, not a barn,” said Dr. Greg Penner (PhD), a USask associate professor and the university’s Centennial Enhancement Chair in Ruminant Nutritional Physiology.

“The design of the barn is intended to support highly detailed and frequent scientific measurements. We are really trying to find out why things happen nutritionally and how things happen nutritionally, not just what happens.”

When cattle drink water with high levels of sulphates, those sulphates bind trace minerals in the animals’ rumens, which means their bodies can’t absorb the minerals. The consequences can include diarrhea, reduced fertility and milk production, slow growth, a depressed immune system, and polio.

“We have anecdotal evidence regarding water quality. Right now, there isn’t any science to support those recommendations,” said Leah Clark, a livestock and feed extension specialist with the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture.

“A lot of marginal land is used for growing grass and is suitable for raising cattle, but sometimes the only source of water isn’t that great. In some cases, cattle can survive drinking poor quality water, but they won’t necessarily thrive,” said Colby Elford, another livestock and feed extension specialist with the ministry.

The LFCE research program’s main goal is to improve livestock and forage practices for producers, and that’s why the sulphate study is so critical. The metabolism barn was designed for this type of research. For instance, the team is evaluating the sulfate intake in varying quantities of water consumed. 

“With the new barn, we can manipulate the quality of water and measure the quantity of water delivered at an animal level, something we can’t do in outdoor pens and something we couldn’t do in our previous facility,” said Penner.

Within each of the barn’s 24 stalls, researchers can precisely measure several factors on an individual animal, including body weight and feed and water intake. The stalls make collecting blood, fecal and urine samples safer for the animals and those working with the animals. 

The sulphate research project is funded under the new Strategic Field Program through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a federal-provincial initiative, at a cost of $82,900. Saskatchewan Agriculture has contracted Penner to conduct the research.

Once the researchers determine the effects of various levels of sulphates in drinking water, they hope to conduct further research in order to recommend how to properly compensate for elevated sulphates in water by providing cattle with mineral supplements.

The Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence is USask’s newest research facility. The $38-million centre comprises three units: the Beef Cattle Research and Teaching Unit (south of Clavet, Sask.) and the Forage Cow-Calf Research and Teaching Unit (south of Clavet and east of Lanigan, Sask.) as well as Goodale Farm (southeast of Saskatoon).



Note to Editors: Greg Penner is available for interviews at the metabolism barn, south of Clavet, on Monday afternoon and Thursday morning. Colby Elford and Leah Clark are available for telephone interviews. They are based in Moose Jaw.

Photos of the cattle in the metabolism barn are available for download on flickr. Please credit: Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence, University of Saskatchewan.

A story about this research is posted on the LFCE website.


For more information and to arrange interviews, contact:

Lana Haight
Outreach and Engagement Specialist
Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence
University of Saskatchewan
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