28 Feb Water
By Michael Flood
From the grass on your pasture to the four-legged (and two-legged) animals on your ranch no life can exist without water. This past summer may have given you more cause to think about water than ever before, with record low rainfalls across the province, in particular over its prime ranch lands. As in many things we’ve talked about in this series of newsletters water is a key place where your ranches immediate needs and the concerns of the public overlap. Below we’ll give you some pointers on managing your water sustainably for both your own bottom line and the good of the ranching industry.
Beef cattle need a lot of water. The rule of thumb is 9 litres of water per 100 kilograms of body mass in cold weather, doubling that amount when it’s hot. Lactating cows require double the water that dry cows do in the same environment. Both these numbers are affected by the humidity of the air as well, with cattle needing more water on dryer days than on more humid ones. Further info about cattle water consumption can be found here: https://beef.unl.edu/amountwatercowsdrink (Imperial units on site converted to metric in this article).
Cattle get water from their grazing and their feed, but it is a good idea to have ready sources of water available for them as well to make up any shortfall. It’s helpful to map out the water resources of your ranch and make some estimates about the amount available. The Alberta Government’s Ministry of Agricultural and Rural Development provides a handy guide to making such calculations here: http://www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/agdex1349. It can help you decide about whether you need to start seeking new water sources, and give you ideas about how to go about protecting the water supplies you have.
One concern the public has about the cattle industry is the pollution of streams and other bodies of water by animal waste. This can be an issue if your cattle are drinking directly from a stream on your land. The phosphorus and nitrogen in their waste can cause algae blooms and other effects that reduce the water’s quality. One good solution, if the stream is accessible, is planting trees and shrubs along it to absorb these chemicals before they can get into the water – the trees can also, in a couple years, provide much needed shade on the hottest days for your cattle, helping to reduce their water needs further. Additionally, you can create an artificial pond on your property and pump stream water to it, keeping the cattle and their waste apart. (http://www2.epa.gov/nutrientpollution/sources-and-solutions-agriculture)
Another solution, and one that can improve the overall water situation on your farm, is constructing a dugout, a deep pit for capturing melting snow and rain to provide a year round water source. Once a dugout is filled, which takes about one winter of snow and rainfall, you can set up a pump to take the water to your cattle, keeping the dugout clean and readily available year round. A well constructed dugout can provide you with a decade or more of service before sedimentation and aquatic plants render it unusable, at which point you can dig another, or clean out your current one.. The Alberta Ministry of Agriculture provides the following handy guide to dugout construction: http://www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/eng10359
In all your conservation efforts be sure to keep a record of your activities and share it around, particularly on social media (Facebook and Twitter). By talking about our own concerns, showing we’re knowledgeable about the issues, and demonstrating our actions to do something about them we can open up a dialogue with the public and make our voices heard in the discussion about sustainability.