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Water: A Wise Investment

09 December 2014

Uni Kansas State

Money made now is best invested in water on your operation. Do not forget the drought you've just battled through.

This is the message of the Kansas State University beef extension team, which advises water resources will remain limited, according to what climatologists are saying. 

In the November edition of Beef Tips, a team of watershed specialists writes that water justifiably remains at the front of minds in Kansas. 

Time to Invest

This “good time” in the cattle business offers a chance to improve quantity and quality of water resources. Water location has a big impact on grazing distribution, yielding a more efficient harvest of forage resources and the ability to practice rotational grazing.

Figure 1. A limited access watering site with fence

Existing water resources can be renovated or modified and new sources of water can be added. Often, as existing water source can be used with a relocated distribution point (waterer or tank).

Cattle spend only a few minutes a day actually drinking, but will spend hours loafing around a water source and it’s the “loafing” that should be minimized.

There have been multiple studies researching the performance of cattle with access to either high quality or low quality water with inconclusive results. But, studies have definitely shown that cattle have a distinct preference for water in a tank, as compared to water direct from a pond.

Ponds are the most common source of livestock water throughout much of Kansas. They generally store large quantities of water, can be constructed in various settings, and may provide other benefits like recreation and flood control.

However, if cattle are allowed free access to the pond, the life of the pond will be shortened due to sedimentation from bank erosion, water quality will be impaired, and the pond can be hazardous in winter if cattle walk on the ice.

These ponds dry up quicker during dry times because they are already shallow and don’t hold much water.

There are two solutions to the problem of cattle having free access to a pond. One involves putting a pipeline through the dam and gravity feeding a tank below the pond dam. Once the tank is installed, the pond can be fenced, keeping cattle from direct access.

This allows vegetation to grow on the bank of the pond, protecting it from erosion and thereby extending the life of the pond. A float is placed in the tank to shut off the water from the pond when the tank is full.

Geotextile fabric should be placed around the tank, with gravel on top. This will prevent the immediate area around the tank from becoming excessively muddy.

The “line through the dam” is the best way to prolong life of a pond and ensure good quality water. However, this method does require sufficient elevation difference from the water level to the tank below the pond.

Generally, six feet of fall is desired from the bottom of the primary spillway to where the tank will sit. While it’s best to install the pipeline as the pond is being constructed, the line can be laid in an existing pond with virtually no loss of water.

Limited Access

Not every pond has the necessary elevation difference to place a tank below the dam. But, in situations where a tank is not practical, there is still the limited access option. In this situation, the pond is fenced, but a small area, designed similar to a boat ramp, allows cattle access to the water, but only in that limited area (Figure 1). The approach to the water’s edge should be reinforced with geotextile fabric and topped with gravel. The approach should have a slope of 6:1 or even be flatter.

The width of the access will vary, but minimum recommendations are 10 feet plus one foot for each 10 head of cattle– for example, 15 feet for 50 head. The water’s edge of the access must also be fenced allowing for 3 feet or so of water, and should be constructed in such a way to allow moving the fence if water levels in the pond lower enough to require the fence be moved. The limited access allows cattle water, but not enough water to stand and loaf in.

The hardened, gravelled surface keeps cattle out of mud and the fenced pond eliminates bank erosion as well as greatly reducing the amount of fecal material getting into the water.

Moving Water with Solar Pumps

The solar pump is gaining in popularity, often replacing windmills as the preferred way to pump water from a well.

They are cost efficient and can be used not only for the traditional well, but also for spring developments and can be used to pump water from a pond or a stream. The power of course comes from sunlight. They are stand-alone pumping systems that require no fuel and very little attention. Solar panels generate maximum power in full sun conditions when larger quantities of water are typically needed.

Solar units can be portable and used to provide water in fields where grazing is temporary, such as corn stalks or cover crops.

Water development is perhaps the most important investment we can make to land resources. Ponds that cattle are allowed free access to are estimated to cost from $300 to $600 per year more than a fenced pond, in terms of lost water storage and increased maintenance costs.

Adding watering sites can improve grazing distribution and beef produced per acre. The management of water, cattle, land and money is all tied together. Wise management of water will be wise management for the other three.

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