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Anyone can start farming: Low-cost water system improves calf gain

Supplying water to animals on pasture can be costly. We ended the 2012 grazing season with very little water in our dugouts and virtually no slough water, but with the snow and slow melt we are very hopeful they will be full. If not though we have a few ideas for low-cost watering systems that have worked for us over the years.

Back in 2002 we had problems with the water supply to our west and north pastures. Our only well on our farm is under our house, so our first thought was to dig another well more centrally located to the grazing areas. After researching this option we decided the cost was too high. After considering a few other ideas and plotting where water lines would have to be placed, we decided to use an overland supply for our west bush pasture and a portable system for our north pasture. The other pastures on the home quarter all have access to the automatic waterer by the barn.

The portable water tank isn’t always necessary. If we combine our close north pasture and far north pastures then the stock can utilize the automatic water trough all summer. But if we rotational graze we need the portable system for the farthest pasture.

Waterline solution

To get the water from the well to the west bush pasture we decided an overland route would be suitable. This pasture is behind our yard and across a hayfield so there wasn’t a danger of animals trampling the hose.

Once we had this plan in place and sketched out on graph paper we consulted Interlake Water Supply and decided to purchase 1.25-inch black PVC piping.

We ran 700 feet of this hose from our winter pen area to the pasture. Close to the pasture we used reducers and attached a piece of garden hose with a valve for water control and then attached this to a float valve on a plastic water barrel. We recycled the barrel, it had held a food-grade substance, and so it had no cost. The float valves we use are from Princess Auto and cost about $12 plus tax.

Most of this system was put into place between 2002 and 2006. We had this barrel and float outside on the fence line since 2002 and the only problem we had ever had till the summer of 2012 was the water getting too warm in the black PVC piping, so we cover it with old hay in the spring. Covering the pipe also helps to prevent the sun from degrading the plastic. We have pastured 12 cows with calves on this 100-acre bush pasture and they utilize this trough extensively even with sloughs available to them.

Then in 2012 we were constantly finding the barrel knocked over and water running everywhere. We assume that due to the dry conditions for the first time since we have lived in Narcisse, the slough in the back of our quarter had dried up. Therefore when the herd came for water there was a lot more pressure than in the past. To cure this problem my son and husband made a trough from an old cast-iron bathtub.

The tub was found in a junk pile in an old farmyard so it has no cost. Once we cleaned the tub well we found a plug to fit for a couple of dollars at the hardware store in town. Then we sat it on top of pieces of scrap four-by-four square posts so that it could be drained if need be. We fit it through the fence so cattle could access it from two pastures. Then we attached the Princess Auto float valve. We pounded fence posts alongside to keep it from tipping over and except for one incident when a calf unplugged the tub it worked extremely well all summer for one bull and 16 cows and calves.

Unfortunately there are no longer any government assistance programs for these kinds of projects. There used to be programs for funding through Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Assistance (PFRA) but they no longer exist. There is still assistance with technical details, planning and navigating the new water laws though that can be sourced if desired.

Improved gains

We have noticed an increase in calf gain off pastures that have a steady supply of fresh water. In comparing calves at the same stocking rate in different pastures, the calves using fresh trough water averaged 10 pounds more per head than calves using pastures with dugouts only. That isn’t a lot but it is at least $10 more per calf so it has covered the costs of the system and the hydro to run our pump quite easily. The added bonus is that when the sloughs start getting low if there wasn’t a fresh water supply, the cattle would then be putting a lot more pressure on the fences to look for cleaner water. Also we used to have to move cattle to other pastures when this happened and we don’t have the room to do that anymore.

The longer we farm the more I believe that farmers new all about recycling long before it was cool. Rummaging through old garbage piles on old yard sites is always rewarding. That old bathtub was found in one and saved us $100 compared to a new factory-made trough and the cows really don’t mind at all. †

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