At almost every seminar, presentation or school I teach, one of the hottest topics producers want to hear about is cattle watering systems. I guess it is about time I share with you what I have found to be my favourite summer systems. My intension is to give you some common-sense, unbiased information about what I have found to work on my ranch. I am not selling anything. This information comes straight from the guy who made the mistakes, dealt with the wrecks and fought with the systems. When I set up a water system, I am looking for a combination of dependability, ease of operation and of course the least cost. Use this information how you will. What works for me might not work for you, but you are welcome to it.
My favourite without a doubt is a gravity-fed system straight out of a water source (a river, a dugout, a dam). It requires no pumps and no power. If it is set up right, it is my most dependable and least expensive system.
Gravity always works. But you do need elevation differences on your ranch to make it work. The water source has to be uphill from your watering trough. This can work well if you set it up in a draw where water runoff fills a dugout or a dam. When I lived in the mountains we had a very good system from a mountain creek, but I have also made them work with only a few feet of elevation difference. All that is required is a trough with a good float valve, water pipe, a screen, a weight and a float.
There are two ways to set it up. Place the pipe under the dam or dugout when it is created so the head pressure from the water level will drain out the bottom of the dugout to fill the trough. Or siphon the water over the bank and then down to the trough. All of my gravity-fed systems siphon over the top.
When siphoning, you may want to use a water pump to get the siphon started. You need to fill the water line, then place the screen, a weight and a float on the inlet end of the water pipe and toss it into the water source. The weight and float together keep the inlet end of the pipe at whatever depth under the water you desire. As the water level drops, the inlet always remains below the surface to keep the siphon going.
Can you see the downfall to this system? If you do not have a good float valve at the trough or the cattle damage the line or valve, it does not take very long with a two-inch line to siphon out your water source. I know this first hand. If this worries you, instead of the float and weight, push a steel rod into the water source and tie the inlet end of the water line one foot below the surface. Then if something happened to the trough, you would only lose a foot of water. But this also means you need to keep lowering the inlet as the water level drops so you don’t lose your siphon.
The screen keeps out debris that could plug the float valve in the trough. I’ve come home to an empty trough and dehydrated cows because of a plugged valve.
As long as you secure your trough, use a reliable float valve and protect it from the cattle, this can be a very reliable watering system. The pressure varies with the difference in elevation between the source and the trough. When there is a lot of elevation difference I need a high-pressure valve that does not leak. With minimal difference, the pressure is low and I need a high volume float valve to make sure the trough fills faster than the cattle can empty it.
It seems funny to me now, but I had a solar system working at one pasture for four years before I realized a simple gravity-flow system would do the trick at a fraction of the cost.
The Turkey’s Nest
For all you flatlanders who have just thought to yourselves that this gravity-fed system might work at Greener Pastures but it won’t work here, I have for you “The Turkey’s Nest.” I have no idea why it is named that but it is my second-favourite system. Actually it is a variation of the gravity-fed design. In my part of the world, when you want to collect water for cattle you dig a dugout. Most of my dugouts were put in years ago at the bottom of runoff areas. This pretty much limits me from installing my gravity-fed system as the water source is at the bottom of the hill. When each one was dug, the waste clay was usually dumped in a mound beside the dugout. If the mound is hollowed out in the centre, it can be turned into an inexpensive elevated water storage container. For about $300 (at $85/hr.), I can hire a backhoe to build a 5,000-gallon turkey’s nest.
A gas-powered pump fills the nest every few days, but gravity flow keeps the trough full. The bigger the nest, the more water; it’s nice to have at least a three-to four-day supply. I line the turkey’s nest with silage plastic so that clay does not get stirred up. Don’t allow the nest to ever completely drain or you will lose the siphon.
This is where the good old-fashioned gas-powered water pump is my least expensive pumping system. The principle is the same as pumping into a storage tank. I just found a cheaper tank. Again, make sure you have a good float valve and secure the trough so that the cattle cannot mess with your system.
Of course, I also have a few tanks that are filled by a gas-powered pump. They give me the storage I need for a dependable gravity system when no clay mound is available. If I can find a good deal on some secondhand tanks the cost is quite reasonable as well.
This system has to be set up right to save time when checking cattle. I make sure there is a valve on the tank with a “T” fitting on it. The pump draws water from the source and pumps through the “T” to fill both the tank and the trough at the same time. As the trough fills up, the float valve in the trough closes off and then only the tank continues to fill. This saves me time as I only put a measured amount
of fuel in the pump at each pumping which allows me to start the pump and walk away to check the cattle. It shuts off when the pump runs out of fuel. Set your system up so that if you put in a bit too much fuel and the system was to overflow, it would overflow out the top of the tank and back into the water source away from the trough.
If you are just filling multiple troughs, you have to stand there and watch it as any overflow ends up creating a mud hole where the cattle drink. The check valve in the pump stops the tank from draining back into the dugout and the tank then feeds the trough when needed. Again, a three to four day or more supply is desirable.
That is probably enough for you to absorb this month. Next time I’ll touch on a couple more systems that might work for you. Have you ever seen a solar-powered rock picker?
Steve Kenyon runs Greener Pastures Grazing
Management in Busby, Alta., www.greenerpasturesgrazing.com,(780) 307-
6500, email [email protected]