People, animals need plenty of water

January 27, 2009|By JEFF SEMLER

Last week, I wrote about the needs of man and beast during the winter. The major nutrient that is often overlooked regardless of the weather and the animal is water.

As a matter of fact, dehydration can be an often- unmonitored problem in cold weather because we humans are not prone to sweat then. However, our bodies continue to use water.

So what is this magic elixir? Water is a chemical substance (H2O) that is essential to all known forms of life. It appears colorless to the naked eye in small quantities, though it is actually slightly blue in color. It feels wet to the touch. It covers 71 percent of Earth's surface.

From a biological standpoint, water has many distinct properties that are critical for the abundance of life that sets it apart from other substances. It carries out this role by allowing organic compounds to react in ways that ultimately allow replication.


Water is vital as a solvent and as an essential part of many metabolic processes within the body. Water is also central to photosynthesis and respiration in plants. Photosynthetic cells use the sun's energy to split off water's hydrogen from oxygen to form glucose and release oxygen.

About 70 percent of the fat-free mass of the human body is made of water. To function properly, the body requires one quart to 1.8 gallons of water per day to avoid dehydration; the exact amount depends on the level of activity, temperature, humidity and other factors.

Most of this water is ingested through foods or beverages other than straight water. It is not clear how much water intake is needed by healthy people.

For those who do not have kidney problems, it is rather difficult to drink too much water, but (especially in warm, humid weather and while exercising) it is dangerous to drink too little. People can drink far more water than necessary while exercising, however, putting them at risk of water intoxication, which can be fatal. The "fact" that a person should consume eight glasses of water per day cannot be traced back to a scientific source.

What about our animals? Clean, fresh water should be available at all times. In warmer weather, check water often throughout the day. In colder weather, the use of a water heater is recommended if you live in an area that has freezing temperatures. Always keep the water supply clean of feces and bedding materials, even if that requires cleaning water often throughout the day.

Ice is frozen water but it is not readily available. We humans might like to chew on ice, but animals do not, nor can they access enough water by licking the ice. Many animals can meet their water needs from snow. However, this is not true if the snow has an ice crust or if the animals are in a production stage that requires more water, such as lactating. For example, a Holstein cow in peak lactation can require more than 50 gallons of water per day.

You are the stewards of your animals, so keep their water clean, fresh and unfrozen.

Also, as temperatures dip, energy requirements increase if your animals are outside, so please increase feed, as well.

Now is a good time, as you sit by the fire, to prepare for next year. So assess your pastures and crops, and plan for the warmer days to come.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at

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