Wednesday, April 12, 2017

How well is your water well?

Kari Lewis, MSU Extension - Glacier County

I encourage farmers and gardeners to test their soil before applying fertilizer, I encourage livestock producers to test their hay for a nutrient analysis before feeding, and today, I’d like to encourage rural residents to consider testing their water, whether it be for human or livestock use.

There is a vast number of people and resources monitoring municipal water supplies to ensure that the water meets drinking water quality standards.  For the private well water user, however, it is up to them to monitor the well water quality and ensure it meets drinking quality standards. 

The MSU Extension Well Educated program provides well owner education as it relates to health and
MSU Extension offers free water test kits through the local offices,
stop by and pick yours up to test well water, livestock water, or
irrigation water.  Photo by Kari Lewis.
quality of life.  Through the Well Educated program, free water collection bottles are available at your local Extension office that can then be sent to a Montana lab for analysis.  A few of the common questions I receive related to this program are, “What should I test for?” and, “How much does it cost?”

What you should test for depends upon what the water will be used for.  If the water you’re testing will be used for drinking water and hasn’t been tested in recent years, then a basic domestic analysis that measures alkalinity, bacteria, nitrate, pH, and total dissolved solids, is a good choice and is only $35.   A basic annual analysis is the minimum test that all private well owners should complete each year.  The basic analysis measures bacteria and nitrates, and is a good tool to track water quality through time, and is only $20. 

Farmers and ranchers should also consider testing their livestock drinking water and irrigation water.  The ‘Suitability of Water for Livestock’ test is $50, and can help identify any parameters which could deter livestock from drinking water and potentially cause health issues or lower livestock performance.  Over ten years ago, we identified numerous water sources on my family’s ranch that are high in sulfates.  This is a concern because sulfur reduces the copper availability in cows which then compromises their immune system and reduces their performance.  Because we tested our cow’s water quality and identified the high sulfur water, we have been able to use chelated minerals to overcome this issue, but we would have never known that was an issue without testing our water.

Another reason to test livestock water is to know if there is nitrate present.  If livestock are consuming feeds that contain nitrates (such as grain hay), and are also drinking water that contains nitrates, the cumulative effect can reduce livestock performance and cause abortions. 

Water quality can frequently change from year to year depending on runoff, drought, and other conditions.  Therefore, I encourage you to stop by your local Extension office and pick up a free water testing kit to collect a water sample from your home well, livestock water, or and/or irrigation water.  Water samples should be collected and shipped the same day, Monday through Wednesday, and results are typically available within two weeks.  

For more information on the Well Educated program, please visit and contact your local MSU Extension office for details.  

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