Viable alternatives to unsafe dugouts

Chipping holes in frozen dugouts to provide water for livestock during the winter is not only cold and nasty but can also be dangerous for both the rancher and his animals.

At minimum, cattle or horses could become injured if they slip and fall, or even drown en masse if the ice gives way.

“Do you really want to gamble with your cattle on the ice? Winter watering systems can make that all go away,” said Carl Driedger, a rancher from Cromer, Man., who also operates a farm-based business called Sundog Solar, formerly Kelln Solar.

_____ CORRECTION _____

A story describing a solar-powered winter watering system on page 65 of the Jan. 15 issue may have left the incorrect impression that Sundog Solar is the new name for Kelln Solar. They are unrelated companies, and Kelln Solar remains in business.

Remote watering systems designed to exploit free energy from the sun, wind and the heat of the earth underground may have a high initial cost, but over time they pay for themselves, he said.

Besides avoiding risks to human and animal health, these systems allow producers to winter their animals on pastures and hay fields where the resulting manure offers fertility benefits, rather than a cost for hauling it away in spring.

“Keeping the bulls off the yard with an off-site watering system is better than having them smash up your corrals at home. But there could be 10 other benefits for you,” Driedger said.

Many ranchers will at some point be faced with the prospect of dredging out old watering holes. A better option, he said, would be to fence off the dugout and install a weather-proof, wet-well watering system beside it.

Installing one can be accomplished in a single afternoon, he said.

First, a backhoe is brought in to dig a deep hole right beside the watering hole but leaving a strip of earth between the two to act as a temporary dam.

Then, a two-inch stationary plastic intake pipe in the form of a “T” is installed in the hole, at a point about a metre from the bottom.

The T should have half-inch holes drilled in it to allow good water flow and keep gunk from getting in, yet still prevent muskrats from crawling in and plugging it up.

A 30 metre trench below the frost line is then dug leading up to a 30-inch plastic cribbing that houses the water bowl and a small pump at the bottom. A motion detector triggers the pump when animals come up to drink, and any excess water drains back into the cribbing.

“The water in the dugout under the ice is only two or three degrees above freezing. So by going that 100 feet, you warm up the water and you keep the manure away from the dugout,” he said.

The temperature underground could be 4 to 9 C depending on the depth.

Driedger recommends plastic cribbing because it won’t rust, retains warmth from the ground better, and is wide enough to allow a person to crawl down inside for repairs if necessary.

Once the water line to the cribbing is attached and the trench filled in, the backhoe operator then takes out the last scoop of earth separating the dugout from the hole and the water flows in to cover the intake.

“Do it right the first time and you’ll have a good system forever. If you have enough water, there’ll be no pushing and shoving (of livestock) like there is on the ice with a little wee hole,” said Driedger.

If grid power is available, it is always cheaper than renewable sources, he added.

But where it’s not possible, a well-designed solar panel system can work for years with minimal maintenance.

Because winter days are shorter, solar-powered systems should be doubled up and the batteries kept well insulated.

A small wind generator is a good addition, too, because late fall and early winter days can be hazy for long stretches.

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