Everglades Experiment Station Mimeo Report Number EES65-30 June 1965
SHOULD CATTLE BE WATERED FROM DRAINAGE //
DITCHES ON ORGANIC SOILS? "
H. L. Chapman, Jr. and G. T, Edds
Or organic soils the necessity of water control sufficient to allow roper re-
moval of water from permanent pastures during periods of excess rainfall .or irriga-
tion during dry periods requires a large number.of drainage ditches.. In addition
to the need''for adequate drainage, ,the .physical characteristics of organic soils
is such that the concentration of several hundred cattle in one pasture may result
.in damage to pasture forage' during wet periods due to trampling or pulling up of
plants. Because of this, the recommended size for pastures is 80 acres with a maxi-
mum size of 160 acres.
Is it necessary to fence these ditches away from.cattle?. Can these ditches
be used as a source of water for' battle? These questions, are. often asked.. The ,
purpose. of this discussion is to present the pros and cons of allowing cattle access
to drainage ditches' on organic soils.
Advantages of.Not Fencing Ditches
If ditches are fenced the cost of fencing triples when ditches divide a section
(640 acres) into 80-acre fields as compared to a section of land with no internal
ditches (Figure 1). If the section has one ditch dividing it into two 320'-ac'e'
fields, 6 miles; into 160 acre fields 8 miles and into 80-acre fields 12 miles of
'fencing is needed to keep cattle from ditches. This is a, major expense. in.cattle
In'addition, when cattle 'cannot drink from. a drainage ditch, it is. necessary
to provide wells, water troughs with float valve control. to prevent overflowing,
arid puimps to furnish-water to the battle The smaller.the pastures, the more ex-
pensive and more complicated this' becomes.
a. 640 acres = 4 miles of fence o. 160 acres = 8 miles of fence
b. 320 acres = 6-miles of fence d. 80 acres = .2 miles of fence'.
Figure 1. Miles of fence required to keep cattle away from ditches when a section
of land is ditched to provide pastures of 80, 160, 320, and 640 acres in
/ Chapman, Animal Nutritionist, Everglades Experiment Station; and Edds, Chairman,
Department of Veterinary Science, University of Florida, respectively.
It can readily be seen that if cattle can be watered from drainage ditches
considerable saving in capital outlay and operating expense would be realized.
For example, a mile of fence could be eliminated when a section was divided in
half, two miles can be saved when it is divided into quarters and four miles when
divided into 80-acre pastures. When several sections of land are developed adja-
cent to one another, additional miles of fencing would be saved between sections.
Also, installation and maintenance costs of water facilities could be eliminated.
When ditches are fenced the area between the fence and the ditch will become
infested with vegetation that will, if dense enough, inhibit the flow of water.
If an animal happens to accidently get through the fence and into the ditch it
may not be found and will drown. If the canals were not fenced it would be easier
to keep the ditch banks clean since they would be more accessible.
Disadvantages of Not Fencing Ditches
The primary disadvantage of providing cattle water from drainage ditches is
the potential hazard to health of the animals as well as to man. The factors
that may affect both can be divided into three general groups:
1. Chemical contaminants
2. Internal parasites
3. Disease organisms
The areas of organic soils in Florida are farmed intensively. A large number
of chemical compounds are used extensively in vegetable production. In addition
other crops, including sugarcane and pasture, may be sprayed from time to time
for the control of insects. It is possible that some of these compounds may enter
into the drainage ditches via surface drainage and be transported from area to area
in the water flow. Examples of potential hazardous compounds are organic phosphor-
us, arsenic and copper compounds. NOTICE! The U.S. Department of Agriculture Meat
Inspection Division is now sampling animals at slaughter to determine whether harm-
ful residues may be present.
It is also possible for drainage water to contain sub-lethal levels of nitrate
nitrogen. These nitrates will interfere with the absorption and utilization of
certain vitamins and thus delay the rate of growth of cattle. Higher levels may
prove toxic and kill animals drinking such contaminated water.
It is also possible that the only effect of these chemical contaminants will
be to reduce the rate of growth of cattle and because of this, their effect may not
be recognized. Examples of sub-lethal toxicities of this type have been observed
on the organic sods of the Everglades due to copper.
Dairy cattle are not common on organic soils but where dairy cattle are grazed
on such land which has been sprayed for control of insects, contamination of the
milk by chemical residues may force the owner to discard his entire milk production
for days, weeks and sometimes months.
In areas receiving heavy rainfall and with a snail population for transmitting
fluke infections, animals can and do become heavily infected with flukes. The
severe liver damage produced will markedly reduce growth rate and productivity.
Liver flukes have not been widespread in the Everglades area, but they have re-
portedly.been:observed.by local.veterinarians2/ and should-be'considered a potent-
ial hazard. Areas:that..are difficult to drain should not be:grazed. Applications
of copper sulfate will minimize the snail hazard.
Another parasite that is easily transmitted via contaminated drinking water
or which persists on the grasses in low lying pastures is the lungworm. This is
especially hazardous for cattle which have not been previously exposed and develop-
ed some degree of immunity. Lungworm infections have occurred where animals have
been allowed to drink out of ditches.
Two very important hazards to good reproduction of cattle, leptospirosis and
vibriosis, and also infectious to man, are readily spread by contaminated drain-
off water. This would be a real, serious hazard for breeding cattle that were
allowed to drink from ditches. Other diseases that can be transmitted in drainage
water includes blackleg and hemmorrhgic septicemia.
It should be emphasized that the disease organisms do not have to originate
on the place their effect is expressed. They may be carried in water pumped in
from outside drainage ditches for irrigation purposes, or by birds, insects or other
Lateral ditches need to be cleaned occasionally to insure proper water flow.
When cattle drink from ditches on organic soils, cleaning of ditches may be re-
quired more often. Also, occasionally small or weak animals may be mired up in
the soft muck and be unable to get out.
1. A section of well-managed pasture on organic soil will graze 650 to 800
mature cattle. If the section is divided into 80-acre pastures, a total of four
miles of fence could be eliminated by allowing cattle to drink from drainage
ditches. The cost of a mile of fence will vary widely, but a fence constructed
of five strands of heavyduty, four-prong, barbed wire, strung on 8' creosote-
treated fence posts, placed 10 feet apart, will cost approximately $650. Four
miles would cost approximately $2600. Spread over a ten-year depreciation schedule,
this amounts to approximately $260 a year.
2. The loss of one or two cows or steers a year from condemnation of car-
casses at slaughter, or poisoning, parasites or drowning will more than offset
- Hill, H. H. 1964. Personal Communication.
this saving. If the ranch had less money invested in the fences, the difference
would be even smaller. It is possible that cattle may be watered from drainage
ditches for many years with no ill-effects. However, as mentioned earlier, the
main effect of the vitamin deficiencies, the heavy parasitism, or sub-lethal toxi-
cities could be a reduction of growth or production that may go unrecognized.
3. Because of the large potential hazard to health of both animals and man,
it is recommended that cattle not be watered from drainage ditches.