Can cows find water by smell?

Cows drinking from a stream
Photo credit: Bob Rost
Q:

How do cows find water? (assuming that there is no previous knowledge on the cows part) There is no substantive evidence that cows can smell water (or riparia for that matter). It seems to be generally agreed upon that cows either stumble upon water or follow trails etc to water. However, some believe that cows sense water through smell.

- Oregon
A:

Although I have heard folks talk about it before, to my knowledge there is no hard evidence that cattle have the ability to smell/sense water. Cattle that are inexperienced in a particular pasture usually spend a good amount of time exploring their new surroundings often using existing livestock/wildlife trails. Logically these trails usually lead to water. In addition, cattle, much like many other animals, are not into exerting more energy than they have to and tend to work gentler terrain which often contains the water sources in a pasture. With that said, it is a good practice to show naïve cattle the reliable water source(s) in a pasture at turnout, particularly in extensive rangeland pastures where the distance between water sources may be great and/or located in the uplands.        

Dustin Johnson
Rangeland Livestock Extension Agent
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