'A really big water quality problem for livestock': U of R research team studying ways to remove sulfate from dugouts

A team of University of Regina researchers are studying sulfate concentrations in agricultural dugouts and ponds, in order to find the best ways to remove it.

Kerri Finlay, an associate professor in biology at the University of Regina, is leading the project.

“Sulfate is a really big water quality problem for livestock in the province of Saskatchewan,” said Finlay. “Several years ago, we did a survey of over 100 dugouts in Southern Saskatchewan, and of them, we found about 20 per cent of them had sulfate levels that were higher than what was recommended for cattle.”

Finlay pointed to an incident in July of 2017, when high sulfate levels in water was one of the main causes of death for 200 cattle.

“We don’t entirely know why the sulfate levels are so high in some areas and not others,” said Finlay. “If we can identify what’s causing the sulfate levels, then maybe we can find ways to mitigate that and improve water quality for cattle.”

The four-year project will look at 30 different water sites, and study both the landscapes and the water itself. The team will collect data in the first year, and then look at mitigation options starting in the second year.

“We’re going to pick 10 of the dugouts where we’re going to dredge them out. This is known as dugout cleaning. So, dig out the bottom, let them fill up again and see if that helps,” said Finlay.

Another 10 of the dugouts will have plants put in and around them, to see if that improves the water quality. The final 10 dugouts will be left alone to be used as controls.

“So that we can compare whether these different activities that we’re trying, whether these experiments are actually making a difference on the ones that we’ve added to,” said Finlay.

Two graduate students and several undergraduate students are also part of the project. Graduate student Zohra Zahir is looking at the microbial aspects of the water, while graduate student Micheal Mensah is analyzing the data on the landscapes surrounding the bodies of water.

“Hopefully, by the time we are done with this project, the high levels of sulfates in dugouts — which keeps affecting production in cattle — will be a thing of the past,” Mensah said.

The Agricultural Development Fund awarded the project $279,125 in funding. The Saskatchewan Cattlemen’s Association provided some funding as well.