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Ensuring Water for Livestock

During a drought, a lack of drinking water is often a bigger problem for livestock than a lack of forage. Livestock are removed from pastures with adequate feed left in them because there’s no drinking water after the pond or stream dries up. Ensuring reliable, adequate drinking water can help guarantee that it’s always possible to utilize forage when it’s available.

Photo by Nick Moore

There’s also value in strategically distributing water sources throughout a pasture. Research trials performed by Jim Gerrish in Missouri indicate that cattle poorly utilize grazing areas that are more than 900 feet from water. Having only a single water source in a pasture tends to concentrate grazing in areas near the water source, resulting in overgrazing close to water and unutilized feed away from water. This is often aggravated by the fact that shade trees usually grow near water, and by the common practice among ranchers of putting salt sources close to water.

Having multiple water sources around a pasture can greatly improve grazing distribution so that grazing pressure is uniform. You can dramatically improve pasture performance by preventing both overgrazing and undergrazing. The first step towards this improvement is to develop a water source that provides adequate quality and quantity of water. One major source is from surface water, such as ponds and streams.

(Don’t) Look Beyond the Surface

Surface water is a result of rainfall, which, as we all know, is variable, and it rains less in drier areas and drought years, when we need water the most. Therefore, it’s desirable to have a constant supply of water rather than the flood-or-drought cycles that come with rain-fed water sources. Here are some ways to maximize surface water for your livestock.

Ponder the possibilities. Ponds are a highly desirable feature on the farm. They not only provide livestock with water, but can also be used for firefighting, fishing, boating, swimming, irrigation, and simple enjoyment. A well-designed and well-maintained pond is a thing of beauty, and quite often the focal point of a farmstead. Unfortunately, most pasture ponds are nothing more than feces-laden mudholes that do a poor job of providing for all the tasks listed above. The primary problem with most pasture ponds is unrestricted livestock access. (See “Don’t Muddy the Waters,” below).

Keep water high on the landscape. Water, of course, tries to move downslope. The longer this takes, the more water will infiltrate the soil. One innovative system for providing water to a farm is keyline development, which involves sculpting the landscape to create small ponds at as high an elevation as possible (see “Keyline Planning below).

Size ponds to fit your needs. Reliable water supply takes water storage. Bigger ponds can obviously supply more water than smaller ones. For a given volume of water, a deeper pond with a smaller surface area will lose less water to evaporation than a shallow pond with a large surface area. Round ponds lose less water to seepage than long, thin ones, although a long and narrow shape may offer more habitat for fish and other aquatic life.

Don’t muddy the waters. It’s essential to keep animals out of water sources. When it gets hot, animals like to swim, which can greatly reduce heat stress. Allowing them unrestricted access to surface water, however, can cause a number of problems.

Illustration by Steve Sanford

The first problem is the eventual failure of the water source, particularly ponds. A pond holds water because it’s a hole in the ground surrounded by soil. If the banks of the pond are trampled by cattle or other livestock, erosion inevitably occurs, and the soil from the banks soon ends up filling in the pond.

Second, animals standing in water tend to defecate, depositing parasites and disease organisms into the water. The fecal matter could also cause blue-green algae, which can be toxic, by introducing nitrogen and phosphorus into the water.

Finally, it’s also common for animals to get stuck in the mud or to fall through the ice when allowed free access to a pond. My father lost three heifers in one day when they fell through the ice on a pond with unrestricted access. Not only did he lose those animals, but their carcasses were impossible to remove and the decayed flesh contaminated the water for a year.

For these reasons, fencing a pond to exclude livestock is a wise investment. If reducing heat stress through swimming is necessary, it may be best to construct another pond for this purpose.

Lead a cow to limited water. A limited-access structure can prevent livestock from damaging the banks of the pond while still allowing it to be used as a water source. Of course, livestock need access to a pond so they can drink from it. Therefore, you must devise a way to allow them to get water without entering the pond unrestricted. The ways to do this are limited only by your imagination.

Illustration by Steve Sanford

One way is to create a restricted-access area, with only a small portion of the pond bank accessible. Cover this area in a trample-proof surface, such as coarse gravel, preferably laid over geotextile fabric. Often, hoof traffic pushes gravel into soil during wet periods, and then the gravel is gone. Geotextile is a sheet of tough woven plastic, similar to a woven plastic tarp. Although tough, geotextile is permeable; it lets rain pass through while it stops the gravel from sinking into the underlying soil. Geotextile is far superior to a concrete pad, which provides a mud-free surface in one place but transfers water to the edge of the pad and worsens mud problems there.

Photo by Eugene Sergeev

Exploit gravity. Another way to utilize water from a pond for your livestock, without allowing access into it, is to move the water outside the fenced area. This can be accomplished by either exploiting gravity, running a tube through the dam, installing a siphon tube over the dam to any spot lower in elevation, or pumping the water through a hose to a tank anywhere outside the pond fence (even uphill).

Illustration by Steve Sanford

Pumps can be powered by a variety of energy sources, such as gasoline, wind, electricity, or solar. As solar panels become increasingly affordable, solar-powered pumps (often with a battery backup) have become the preferred way to move water uphill to a tank. You can set them up to pump constantly, with an overflow back to the water source, or to turn off when a float valve shuts off and backs pressure up against the pump.

Illustration by Steve Sanford

Capture and contain. A guzzler is a structure that consists of a rainwater-collecting surface (usually corrugated roofing metal) that empties into a storage container (such as a large galvanized tank). Guzzlers depend on rainfall to recharge, but they can provide temporary drinking water for a short period of time in areas where water would otherwise be unavailable.

Illustration by Steve Sanford

A good place to locate a guzzler is in a pasture area that’s historically underutilized by grazing livestock, such as a hilltop far from water. A guzzler can provide both shade and water to attract animals. Whenever possible, use the roofs of existing buildings to fill water containment structures. Consider how often you need to haul water to a barn for a confined animal. Wouldn’t it be easier to have a tank right there that fills from the roof runoff every time it rains?

Cost quickly becomes an obstacle to storing large quantities of water high on a landscape. I learned about a cheap way of building water containment structures in college. They say you learn more outside the classroom than you do inside it, and this is a good example.

My fraternity house hosted a beach party every year in the backyard, and every year we transformed that house into oceanfront property. We had sand dumped in the yard and then filled a bunch of sandbags and stacked them in a ring. Then, we lined this structure with two layers of heavy-mil plastic. Presto! Instant swimming pool and surrounding beach. It worked great and went up quickly and cheaply.

Illustration by Steve Sanford

The same basic design could work on your farm. And now there are more materials available that can do an even better job than our hand-filled sandbags. Used mini-bulk seed bags can hold several tons of soil or sand apiece and, once filled, are very stable due to their cubical shape. The bags are made of woven plastic that’s very tough and virtually waterproof. You can also buy pond liners made of butyl rubber or EPDM rubber. These are widely available through pond supply stores and much more durable than plastic sheeting. The best attribute of these structures is that you can place them on a hill and, via gravity, the water will flow to tanks situated downhill. Use a siphon tube so you don’t have to make a hole in the wall. Initially, the pond will need to be filled with water via any type of pump.


Keyline Planning

P.A. Yeomans, a former gold-mining engineer turned cattle rancher in Australia, observed that even in arid areas there’s often a surplus amount of water in valleys, while the adjacent ridgetops are quite parched. He created a system that would move water out of the valleys and onto the ridgetops to the benefit of both areas. His ideas involved identifying “keypoints” in the landscape. A keypoint is a location at the top of a valley (see diagram, right) where a steep slope begins to flatten out. This is the highest point on the landscape where water can be economically impounded.

Yeomans then identified the keyline, which is a contour line on the landscape that’s on the same elevation as the keypoint. He also created a furrow on this contour line to take overflow from the pond at the keypoint out to the ridgetops, where another impoundment, called a “saddle pond,” holds a reserve of water on top of the ridge. Because the saddle pond sits on the ridgetop, gravity will distribute the water in the saddle ponds to any point on the ridge that’s lower in elevation, for either irrigation or livestock water.

Illustration by Steve Sanford

Finally, he created a series of furrows parallel to the keyline with an implement similar to a subsoiler, known as the Yeomans plow. If you study the topography carefully, lines parallel to the keyline and below it will have a slight slope downward to the ridgetops, and the net effect is to move runoff water toward the ridgetops. Yeomans claimed that the use of what he named “the keyline system,” would increase topsoil depth, thanks to the use of the Yeomans plow to aerate the root zone.

The Drought Resilient Farm

Reduce the impact of drought on your soil, crops, livestock, and farm or ranch ecosystem by adopting an innovative system. Ranging from simple, short-term projects such as installing rain-collection ollas to long-term land-management planning strategies show how to get water into the soil, keep it there, and help plants and livestock get access to it. For more helpful ideas, The Drought Resilient Farm and more can be found in our online GRIT store.


Dale Strickler is a Kansas farmer and rancher with a master’s degree in agronomy from Kansas State University. He’s a professional agronomist, specializing in cover cropping and grazing strategies to build soil health. Excerpted from The Drought Resilient Farm by Dale Strickler, photography by Steve Sanford, used with permission from Storey Publishing.

Published on Apr 1, 2020

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