Innovation required when the tap runs dry

If cattle are allowed access to depleted ponds or dugouts, they may damage them or pollute what little bit of water is left. | Heather Smith Thomas photo

Some prairie producers use portable water systems such as troughs on wheels, while others use solar-powered pumps

Some farmers and ranchers are forced to find innovative ways to supply their cattle with good water during drought.

Regions that rely on dugouts can become short of water if snow melt or rainfall is lacking.

If cattle are allowed access to depleted ponds or dugouts, they may damage them or pollute what little bit of water is left.

Alberta rancher Ian Murray has his dugouts and water sources fenced so cattle can’t get into them.

“The cattle are supplied with water pumped out of a dugout and into a trough. We also have a seasonal creek that runs part of the year. Occasionally, we don’t get a pump set up on that creek, but we try to manage it as best we can with timing and grazing management,” he says.

“We never allow cattle access to water in the dugouts because they can damage the structural integrity and keep the water muddy and contaminated with manure. The dugouts last much longer if cattle are not allowed access.”

Each dugout is surrounded by a vegetation strip, which acts as a filter.

“When we do have a dry year, we lose a lot less water. Cattle aren’t trampling it into mud. You have more water if the cattle stay out of it; a little bit of water can go a lot farther.

“The water we are pumping out is also cleaner. We use some portable and some semi-permanent systems for pumping water to the cattle.”

Some people use portable water systems such as troughs on wheels, and some use solar-powered pumping systems.

Jeff Brown, who ranches with his father near Faith, South Dakota, made a portable water rig, using an old army truck. The poly tank on the truck holds more than 2,000 gallons and can be driven anywhere on the ranch to supply water in a far pasture.

“We just drag some 1.5-inch high-density poly pipe around to service the tank. When it’s hot and the cattle all come to drink at once, there will be 10 gallons for every cow,” says Brown.

His first version had a big yellow tank on the back of the truck. Green slime formed inside the tank during summer, so they covered the tank with a shed.

“We also found a military trailer—an old munitions trailer—at an auction, and put tanks on that, too, with water troughs along the side. The trailer is always hooked to the truck. The tank on the trailer holds 750 gallons. We can drop the troughs down when we get to where we want them, lowering them to where the calves can reach the water.”

The tanks are fastened solidly to the trailer — the rear one for the calves and the two side tanks.

Jeff Brown, who ranches with his father near Faith, South Dakota, made a portable water rig using an old army truck. The poly tank holds more than 2,000 gallons and can be driven anywhere on the ranch to supply water in a far pasture. | Jeff Brown photo

“The trailer is air ride, however, so when we get to where we want the troughs to be, we use a dump valve to let the air out, so the whole trailer sinks down to a level that the cattle can reach the tanks easier,” he says.

The sources for water on his ranch are wells, with pipelines from the wells. These wells are about 200 feet deep, and have good water, and run about 15 to 20 gallons a minute to fill the tank truck and trailer.

“When the cattle are drinking out of those troughs (with floats to shut off the water when they are full), the tanks stay hooked to the above-ground lines,” he says.

“We have other water tanks also, and can tap into pipelines from the wells. On one of our leased places we have about six taps to service 2,200 acres. We just drag the poly pipe around to where we need it, in 1,000-foot pieces.

“We can drag a pipe through the pasture with our Polaris Ranger ATV and hook it up to the water rig on the trailer,” he says.

“The cattle are moved to different pasture about every few days, and it’s handy to be able to move the water with the cows.”

He also made several small trailers out of scrap metal to haul smaller tanks for smaller herds.

“We have tanks that can water 150 to 200 yearlings, and some smaller ones for smaller groups of cattle. We have big drains in the bottom of those tanks so when we need to move them, we can just pull those tubes out and drain them, and then pull those tanks (on the small trailers) around the pastures with the Polaris Ranger. Empty, they are not heavy,” he says.

Bart Lardner of the University of Saskatchewan says producers don’t want cattle drinking directly from the source, no matter where it comes from.

Some producers fence off their ponds and then pipe the water underground to a nose pump for the cattle to use. | Rosemary Brown photo

“It needs to be fenced off. A person can pump into a trough, or put in what we call a wet well that can be located several hundred yards away from the pond or dugout,” Lardner says.

Water can be piped underground from the bottom of the dugout and brought back up to the surface with a pipe inside a vertical culvert. This can bring water up to a nose pump or a motion-controlled system that pumps into a watering trough.

The objective is to supply water to the cattle farther away from the source, to keep the pond clean, without cattle tromping in it and breaking down the banks or damaging the vegetation around it.

“The important thing with an off-site water source is to keep track of it, check it often, and make sure it is still working,” says Lardner. “We’ve seen situations where cattle were only checked every two weeks and there can be some issues if the water supply is disrupted. If cattle don’t have adequate water, they will go looking for some.”

It’s also important to make sure the calves can get a drink. If there isn’t enough water in a trough, the cows may drink it down to such a low level that the calves can’t reach it.

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