When I check the weather this time of year and see forecasted temperatures in the single digits or colder, it brings back fond memories of de-icing cattle waterers on the farm. For those of you who haven’t had the privilege of thawing out water pipes and valves in subzero temperatures, I’ll describe it for you.

Two years ago this past January, an ice storm rolled through central Wisconsin, coating the university beef farm — where my wife and I lived at the time — with a healthy layer of ice. As a result, tree limbs snapped under the ice load, snapping the powerlines headed to the farm. Temperatures then fell below zero.

The heating elements in the outdoor cattle waterers were electric, and the only thing you can do if the power goes out is close up the doors on the waterers and hope the power comes back on before they freeze up. In this case, they froze. Once the power came back on, we bucketed hot water from the barn to each waterer and poured it over the valve and supply lines until each one was functional again.

One waterer didn’t thaw using this method, so I removed the control valve, submerged it in hot water, and poured hot water down the supply line until it began to flow. Then I put the valve back on — no easy task. This is like trying to attach a spray nozzle to the end of a garden hose that is running full blast. Also, the air was cold enough that the spray coming from pipe as I screwed the valve back on was turning to snow in midair! Once all the waterers were working again, I went the house to warm up and realized I was covered in a thick sheet of ice and my coat zipper was iced up! I had to thaw for awhile before I could put on dry clothes. Believe it or not – I miss those days.

Why go through all this trouble for the cattle to have water? Scientific literature says the cattle could have survived without it for several days if they had to, but good animal husbandry includes maintaining access to water. Our relationship with the livestock that ultimately become our food is ideally symbiotic: we provide them with food, clean water, shelter, protection from predators, and veterinary care, and they provide us with meat, milk, eggs, and many other products that contribute to our well-being. Maintaining good animal welfare may require the allocation of extra time and money, but good welfare generally pays for itself.

I studied the impact of water deprivation on cull dairy cows during my master’s degree program. At the time, many of the livestock auctions in the Upper Midwest did not allow water access to livestock in their facilities at all times. They cycled groups of animals through one or two “water pens” that were equipped with a water tank. This met the requirements of state law, where animals had to have water access if held for more than 24 hours. But behavioral interactions between animals, pen stocking density and time in the pen are factors that tend to hinder animals from actually gaining access to water while they are in the water pen. If you’re in the slaughter business, you know the regulations under the Humane Slaughter Act require water access in all holding pens at all times.

We set up a study that mimicked the conditions cull dairy cows would see in the holding pens of an auction facility to determine how long the average cull cow could go without water before she started to experience physiological changes that impact her well-being and subsequent meat quality.

We measured 20 blood components every nine hours for 36 hours and found very few differences between cows that had water access and cows that did not. We also didn’t see a difference in blood cortisol, which is a hormone commonly measured to quantify the level of stress an animal experiences.

We also measured weight loss in the cows and saw that there was no difference in weight loss up to 18 hours whether the cattle had water access or not. Cows that did not have water access between 18 and 36 hours lost 0.7-percent more weight than cows that had access to water.

For an entire 36-hour period, cows with water access lost 3.1 percent of their body weight, while those without water lost 5.2 percent. This is the economic incentive that good animal husbandry offers. Allow the cows to have access to water, and they sell for a few more dollars since they are sold on a per-pound basis.

Water access didn’t have an effect on dressing percentage at the slaughter plant. We also didn’t see a difference in cooler shrink, which means the slaughter plant gets to keep the extra weight the animals retain. We also saw 1.2-percent greater moisture content in meat samples from cows that were given water access over cows that were not. The effects we saw in this study were likely smaller than what we would have seen during the summer when temperatures were warmer.

This study began to quantify what we have to gain by paying attention to something as simple as water access. Maintaining water access for livestock is the right thing to do to help ensure their well-being. But if you need more incentive, it pays you back too.