Pumping water improves pastures

OLDS, Alta.— Cleaner drinking water and less erosion around creeks are obvious from the start when ranchers install new watering systems.

Ian Murray of Acme, Alta., installed off-site watering systems when he started Shoestring Ranch in 2007. He pumps water from a dugout during winter and started to see benefits right away, despite experiencing glitches as he adapted the solar powered system to his pastures.

He has watched cattle walk to the trough rather than stop at the creek, and it wasn’t long before local creek banks started to improve with new growth to keep banks stable, he said during a ranching seminar held in Olds Feb. 26.

He also calculated that he extended his grazing season by an extra month, which saved money on winter feed. As well, he was able to open up 320 acres that had not been used for grazing in the past because he could now deliver water.

“I paid $7,600 for the system and it has paid for itself and it will last a long time,” he said.

Environmental benefits also appeared on Sean LaBrie’s Difficulty Ranch near Olds.

He uses a solar wet well and a portable solar water station to look after 125 cow-calf pairs. It is expandable to 200 pairs.

The local creek was fenced off, and the riparian area soon recovered.

The improvements have been discernible since he had a riparian assessment done in 2011 with the Cows and Fish Society.

For example, there are fewer thistles because the grass outcompetes the weeds, and bushes and willows are regrouping.

“We are starting to get some of the woody species back besides just grass in our pasture,” he said.

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Growth in the zone is so prolific that the cows are turned in every couple years to graze it down and reduce fire hazards.

These systems can be expensive, but the Growing Forward program covered 50 percent of the cost because of the environmental benefit of removing livestock from water courses.

Animal health and safety has also improved. Cattle are no longer falling in the creek and dugout, and calves are healthier because they are not nursing from dirty udders.

“We have probably seen a reduction in younger sick calves,” he said.

Pastures are also better because he can move the water around. As well, he has extended his grazing period so that there is less winter feeding.

“Water options have allowed us to go from 12 paddocks to 33 paddocks,” he said.

“It has certainly increased our amount of grazing. We have more control but of course is more management intensive.”

He must still monitor the water systems on a regular basis.

“We had lots of bugs at the start,” he said, mostly related to floats not working properly.

“It is management intensive in the front end. You have to pay attention and do your checks. You can’t just look out the window and say it is working because the cows are standing around.”

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Cows stand around because they are thirsty, not because they are drinking, he said.

Mike Nichols went a different direction and installed nose pumps. His decision to change the watering system came after his leg went through a hole in the dugout when he was chopping a hole in the ice during – 30 C weather.

“After using frost free nose pumps, I never slipped in the dugout again,” he said.

Nose pumps rely on cow power: the animal pushes on a wide lever to draw up water into a bowl.

Winter nose pumps are well insulated and do not freeze. There is no contamination because there is no back wash in the winter pumps. The water is pumped from a dugout.

He did not think the cows would learn, but they quickly caught on and calves learned from their mothers.

“It was like a toy for them,” he said.

He too has been able to extend his grazing days and noticed the water in the dugout improved because cattle were not wading in and breaking down the banks.

There is less foot rot and no muddy udders. As well, there are no batteries to maintain or solar panels to be stolen or shot at.

“I have no proof, but I know these pumps have saved me time and money,” he said.

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Contact barb.glen@producer.com