Dry weather cycles come and go in cattle country, sometimes making it hard to provide plentiful water for the herd. It can be especially challenging in arid environments such as North Dakota, where Bruce Knudson ranches. Here, at the edge of the Turtle Mountains, in Bottineau County, water challenges aren't just about quantity, they are also often about quality.
"We see an average 16.5 inches of annual rainfall," Knudson says. "For years, we used one well and a series of dugouts. Dugout water becomes a problem when weather is dry, especially if a dry cycle lasts years."
A commercial cow/calf producer, Knudson also raises wheat, oats, flax, mustard, buckwheat and various cover crops. These rotations and a commitment to cover crops helps keep moisture in soils, but the producer needed a way to be sure his cattle's needs could always be met. His best answer was an expanded well system. Knudson took his one existing well and began installing pipeline to feed additional tanks.
"The first year, we put in 500 feet of pipeline aboveground," he says. "That fed an 800-gallon tank, which cows could access from three different cells in the pasture. Our tanks are large, recycled construction tires."
WELLS AND EXPANSION
When the first expansion proved successful, Knudson felt more confident the operation could support another generation. He started to consider what it would take to bring his daughter into the beef operation. The answer, again, was water expansion.
"We had about 300 acres of land used for hay production," Knudson says. "It was a good location to develop grazing, but there was no water there."
With the help of a neighbor, his local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and his Soil Conservation District office, Knudson dug a 24-inch-deep water line and installed 6,000 feet of pipeline. They supported two new tanks. Existing electric line near the tanks made electric water pumps possible. New fencing created rotational grazing around the tanks. With these changes, Knudson was able to bring in two new herds.
The producer didn't have to do it all on his own. NRCS's Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) covered about 60% of the project cost. It took about three years to complete both projects.
"Adding those acres gave us around 570 total grazing acres," Knudson says. "Our fences created nine paddocks where about 90 cows graze all summer. With the water there, we also plant some cover crops in adjacent fields to extend grazing for cow/calf pairs."
MORE WATER, BIGGER CALVES
Knudson believes adequate and quality water has definitely had a positive impact on his herd. Research data from North Dakota Rolette County Soil Conservationist, Kate Plautz, proves he's right.
A Canadian study by the Western Beef Development Centre reported suckling calves whose dams drank from water troughs gained on average 0.09 pounds per day more than calves whose dams had direct access to a dugout for water. Pumping water added up to an extra 18 pounds at weaning.
The study's theory was that cattle with full access to clean water would drink more and then spend more time grazing. That would result in higher milk production. More milk equals heavier calves.
"We know keeping cattle out of their water source means less nutrient load in the water and less risk of algal bloom," Plautz adds. "We're always happy to help with projects like Bruce's, because we know both producers and livestock benefit."
Plautz advises beef producers with interest in water expansion to identify goals related to installing new wells or pipeline before contacting their NRCS office.
"Make a list of resources and consider how many cattle you have and what your water requirements are," she says. "Is electricity available, or will you need solar power? Do you have a rotational system, or do you need to develop one? How many tanks will it take to give access to water in each cell? What's the general area where fences will go?"
Knudson says these projects have worked out so well, he's continuing to focus on improving water availability and quality across the operation. "We have an old well we had to abandon because the water was bad," he notes. "In that location, we're clearing a nearby dugout out right down to the bottom. We'll fence it off so cattle can't get in it, and we'll pump water out of it into a tank. Kate's office is providing us with the information and expertise to complete that project."
The rest of Knudson's dugouts serve as backups in the event water tanks aren't available. "One summer, we had lightning strike a pump, and it took a couple days to get it up and running," Knudson says.
While some of Knudson's leased acres don't have wells, on his own property, he says peace of mind alone makes it worth investing in water sources.
"In the Great Plains, there are times when water is scarce," Knudson says. "It has taken time and quite a bit of effort to develop our system. In the end, we know this is better for our cattle and much more reliable."
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