Water: The elixir of life, farming

By David H. Samples

Depending on your situation and location this year, you have probably called water many different things.

I know that here in southern Ohio, water was a real nuisance this spring when folks were trying to get crops in the ground or make hay. Now, with only spotty rainfall over the past three weeks and daily temperatures around 90 degrees, the attitude toward water has certainly changed.

For producers. For livestock producers, water quality and quantity are essential for the animals to be productive and has often been called the most critical nutrient.

For the dairy producer, any water limitation will lead to fewer pounds of milk in the tank. For meat producers, an inadequate water supply means that less dry feed will be consumed and that results in reduced growth.

It is true that grazing livestock will require fewer gallons of water per day than will dry lot animals, but what are the normal daily water requirements for grazing animals?

Drinking needs. Lactating dairy cattle will place the greatest pressure on water supplies. Her needs will range from 20-40 gallons per day depending on environmental conditions and the percentage of her ration provided as dry feed.

Mature beef cattle will require 10-20 gallons per day with yearling cattle needing between six to 14 gallons. Horses will generally require from eight to 14 gallons with sheep and goats needing two to three gallons per day.

Understanding what our livestock need is only one part of having a productive business. What is quite often the challenging part is how to make the water available.

Here in southern Ohio, and in many other locations, water access is the most limiting factor our producers face in the development of managed grazing systems. We have an abundance of forages for grazing, but water supplies aren’t always close.

Close water. During our Management Intensive Grazing programs we talk about having water within 600-800 feet of our grazing animals. Research conducted in Missouri and other states shows that having water this close will improve forage utilization and the distribution of manure and urine.

Once you get beyond this distance, grazing and nutrient distribution becomes more concentrated close to the water source and the longevity of the forage stand is reduced.

Another interesting observation that can be made is that if animals need to travel substantial distances to water they will be more likely to travel in groups rather than individually. Similarly, if the water source is not in view of the grazing area, such as over a hill, they will travel in groups.

Where this is the case, the boss animals will generally get their fill and the subordinate animals will not. As producers work to develop their grazing system, these factors become critical.

Efficient use. If a water source can be made available in each paddock, smaller portable tanks can be used efficiently. In these cases, we would anticipate the animals to come to water individually and space for one or two animals is all that is needed.

In contrast, animals going to water in groups will need a large stock tank with room for five percent to ten percent of the animals to drink at the same time. The recharge rate in both situations is also important and needs to be considered when designing the system.

What about water sources? Both surface and underground sources can supply water needs and will be determined by cost, quality and location.

Where underground aquifers can be tapped and a power source is available to pump the water, this may be the most flexible and cost effective option available. Spring developments in some areas are a real life saver and can serve large stock tanks or small portable systems with the extension of temporary lines.

Even low yielding wells and springs can be enhanced by adding a storage tank, and if gravity feed from the tank to the field is possible, you have an added bonus.

Surface drinking. Surface water supplies generally come in the form of ponds or streams. There are many situations where ponds have been developed in upland areas and can service several watering sites by gravity flow.

Obviously, the watershed and soil characteristics are going to determine the feasibility of this water source and will be site specific.

Within our geographic area, streams have been a critical part of most livestock operations. Small and large streams alike have provided natural watering sites either seasonally or on a year-round basis.

Although streams will continue to be a valuable part of livestock grazing systems, changes in animal access to those sites will become critically important. The maintenance, or improvement, of stream quality will dictate how these water sources can be used, and increasing rural populations may speed up those adjustments.

Fencing. There’s little doubt that in due time fencing all livestock out of streams will become reality. Limited stream access sites, with stabilized approach ramps, appear to be an acceptable solution.

The approach ramps should have a slope of six to one (run to rise) and be constructed of concrete or stone with a geotextile fabric base. A 10-foot width will handle 10 head of cattle with an additional 1 foot needed for each 10 animals.

The use of fencing, either electric or not, will help maintain the integrity of the stream banks and the quality of the water.

Simple vs. complex. It’s quite apparent that water systems can be simple or complex with costs covering the same range. One thing is certain: Water quality, quantity and availability are all important and each farm setting has it’s own characteristics.

I would encourage producers to work with their county NRCS and extension staff in the planning and development of water systems. They can be a great resource. If you are looking for good printed materials on this topic, there are two pieces that were developed by our OSU Extension Forage Team as a segment of our grazing notebook.

Another excellent publication that was co-produced by the Great Lakes Basin Grazing Network and Michigan State University Extension, Watering Systems for Grazing Livestock, and should be available from your local extension office.

With the increased funding of the federal EQIP program, it seems that now is the time to begin developing those long-range grazing and water development plans. If water is limiting your ability to improve the utilization of your forages and increase your profitability, this may be the best chance to bring your goals to reality!

(The author is the OSU Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent in Jackson County. Questions or comments can be in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem OH 44460.)

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