Off-grid solar operated water systems are coming down the pipe for a growing number of cattle producers.
It’s a win-win on several fronts, say experts.
“It’s another tool farmers and ranchers can use to help them look after the environment while improving their bottom line,” said Ken Lewis, conservation co-ordinator for Red Deer County in Alberta.
The need for more flexibility, better quality water and the effort to repair or conserve riparian areas are major reasons for installing off-site systems.
“There’s a lot of education and awareness about it. And there’s funding programs now that help farmers and ranchers buy them,” said Lewis, whose job is to help educate and raise awareness of the off-site water systems available to farmers and ranchers.
The Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) program was implemented to assist Alberta producers’ pay for these systems through cost sharing while further adapting better environmental practices.
“When we do this we know the environment improves so we as a society get better environmental services from things like the wetlands,” he said.
Besides being recognized as environmentally beneficial, off-site watering systems also provide ranchers with economic benefits.
Lewis cites several reasons for keeping cattle away from the main source of water.
- Safety: “If you lose one cow in a wetland, and if that cow has 10 calves over her lifetime, you’ve paid for that watering system,” said Lewis.
- Health: “Any time a cow or calf can drink cleaner water they’re going to do better from a health perspective and put more weight on or make more milk.”
- Conservation: Riparian areas are saved from pollution.
- Flexibility: “If you have multiple wetlands that you can pump from with your portable solar watering system, you can move it strategically around your pasture or land base to draw your animals to more evenly use your pastures. That’s going to give some more added benefits because now the nutrients that are coming out the back end of your cows (are) getting spread more evenly across your land where the plants can use it. And it’s not polluting the water source.”
Lewis said one of the big changes over the last 10 to 15 years has been the increased practice of extensive grazing.
“Rather than feeding and watering cattle in the yard they’ll winter out on the fields and pastures.
“Off-grid watering systems provide options now for people, and building in flexibility is a good thing in agriculture.”
With the increased need for year-round watering, Jason Wright, owner of CAP Solar Pumps in Olds, Alta., has seen his business grow.
“We used to be very busy from spring to late summer selling stuff, but now it’s way busier from September to well after Christmas. That’s because guys are developing these winter watering sites in these locations where they need to have water and that’s the big challenge,” he said.
“We’re using the same pumps, but what we’re offering them is the summer option typically from April through to October but we can also quote that producer a system that is year round, meaning that it is sized a little differently but we basically deliver water for a set number of animals through that winter period October through to March.
“For example, guys are corn grazing and the biggest challenge is where do they get water during those winter months.
“And then there’s guys who want to extend their grazing so you don’t have snow but they want to extend their grazing in a field where they just have a dugout. Well, they’re not going to chop ice on them because they know the risk of cattle going through. So then they’re developing these wet wells and we’re putting systems on these wet wells.”
Wright said cattle producers increasingly want more than one system to use in their operation.
“We’re getting more individuals who want both the winter and summer options. What they do is they actually take the same power equipment (solar panels, battery box and solar pump). Pumps are really adaptable to both seasons. You use the same power base to run that pump to the summer pasture and then you take that same pump again and power pack and move it over to that winter tank,” he said.
Before designing a system, some basic questions need to be addressed: size of herd, location of water source, vertical lift from the source to the trough and what time of year the water will be needed.
Wright said solar panel quality is improving and the prices are gradually coming down.
“Solar panels are improving but for the most part they’ve pretty much got them down to where the cost per watt is so low that even though they’re up to at most 15 to 20 percent efficient (in terms of power conversion) they’re still the best buy on the market,” he said.
“New panels are more efficient because they’re using focusing technology and there’s some better materials that they’re using for solar cells. But the cost is like lithium ion batteries. It’s at a point where it’s a premium. If you have the cash you can buy it.”
Pump technology has also im-proved to become more reliable. Many models require minimal maintenance.
New satellite-based systems are also available to detect and measure whether the offsite system is working properly and cattle are getting watered.
“We’ve had guys that have said, ‘it has absolutely changed my life,’ because they’re not in their truck six hours a week running around checking their troughs,” said Wright.
Other systems use cameras that can be monitored by cellphone.
“A picture is worth a thousand words,” said Marvin Jackson, owner of Sundog Solar in Sundre, Alta.
“We found a picture is cheaper than an alarm system and it tells you more stuff.”
Keep it simple is Jackson’s advice for any off-site watering system.
“I tell people it has to work for you. Don’t make it difficult. There’s overkill also on a system,” he said.
“If people can easily use it and move it around, that means the system is going to be used much more and that’s better. If you make it difficult or hard to use, then over a certain amount of time it will probably be put by the wayside.”