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Watering Cattle with the Sun

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Published on: Jul. 2, 1997

Last revision: Oct. 27, 2010

Rivers are the primary source of drinking water for half of Missouri's population. We also use our 53,000 miles of streams for watering livestock, which provide us with dairy and meat products. We need the stream to water cattle, just as we need clean water for drinking, recreation and industry.

But benefits of the food supply to society don't come without a cost. Cities use rivers to carry away sewage, and factories and mines sometimes discharge their wastes to streams. Cattle sometimes pollute streams, though not by design. Water quality can be affected from the direct input of animal wastes. In addition, livestock trample stream banks and the vegetation growing on them, which in turn causes erosion.

To decrease water contamination from livestock, the Conservation Department, working together with the Department of Natural Resources/Soil and Water Conservation Program, Natural Resources Conservation Service and local soil and water conservation districts, is developing economical ways to water livestock inland and help keep cattle out of streams. Solar power watering is one of these alternative methods.

Using the sun to pump water to keep our streams clean may sound farfetched, but it's real and it works. Presently there are two basic types of solar water pumping systems. The simplest system consists of solar panels that provide electricity directly to the water pump. The other type uses batteries to run a pump, and the solar panels recharge the batteries.

When there is little or no sun shining in the sky, large storage tanks hold enough water to last for several days. In addition, the pumps can be set on a timer so that water will flow at predetermined times, regardless of the weather.

Before these watering systems can be effective, livestock owners must install fences to keep the cattle out of the stream. If fresh, cool water is provided nearby, the cattle will not have to walk far, which will give them more grazing time, resulting in better meat and milk production and more money for ranchers.

Paul Calvert, fisheries program coordinator with the Conservation Department, believes in solar powered watering. "Not only will solar watering improve water quality and reduce stream bank erosion, but fresh, cool water will increase weight gains faster than stagnant or polluted water," he says. "In fact, research from North Dakota shows that cattle drinking cool water will grow .3 to .4 pounds more per day than those drinking warm water. Research from western states shows a 50 pound increase in calf weight is possible when good water is available than with less desirable drinking water. Now that is a good reason to use these devices."

David Ballou is president of the Christian County Cattlemen's Association and an employee at City Utilities of Springfield, where he works on clean water projects. Dealing with water quality information on a daily basis at his job makes Ballou keenly aware of the potential effects that livestock, septic tanks and other sources of pollution can have on water resources.

He agrees with Calvert and considers solar water pumping essential to keeping streams clean. "We as individuals must actively improve our soil conservation practices and save our valuable soil nutrients to be used by our own crops," he says. "We can commit now to the best management practices on our farms and ranches."

But Ballou worries that the high cost of these watering devices will be a deterrent for livestock farmers. The solar water pumps start at about $600 and can cost up to several thousand dollars, depending on how much water needs to be pumped, the length of water line and fence needed, and the size and number of the water tanks installed.

To offset these costs, the agencies promoting solar powered watering are offering cost-sharing programs within targeted watersheds or to those using Managed Intensive Grazing that will pay 75 percent of the cost of the watering pumps up to a maximum of $4,500 per system, excluding fencing costs.

Calvert says this cost-sharing program encourages landowners to adopt a pasture managed system that is beneficial to their operation and the stream resource by allowing them to purchase good, functional watering equipment and pay only a quarter of the price. "We want to help these landowners improve their profits while also improving our streams."

Another deterrent that Ballou fears may hamper the success of these devices is the new technology. "Many farmers and ranchers do not feel comfortable using state of the art technology," he says. "They are accustomed to doing things as they did in the past. However, we live in the Show-Me state, so I hope that when the program proves successful, they will want to learn to use this new equipment. If these technologies are used, it can only create an improved situation for humans and animals alike." triangle

Some Common Questions and Answers About Solar Water Pumping

When is it practical to use solar panels instead of utility power?

If you have utility power available to serve your needs then a solar system is not practical. But installing and maintaining a transmission line from the utility grid to a remote location can be expensive. This expense varies with the type of terrain that must be crossed. Generally speaking, if the distance of the line is greater than one-quarter of a mile it is cheaper to use a solar water pumping system.

What do you do when it is cloudy?

Even when it is cloudy, solar panels produce some electricity. To ensure that ample water is always available for livestock, the solar water pumping system is designed with about four days of storage capacity. This is four days of water storage in systems where the pump is directly driven by the solar panels or four days of electrical storage in batteries for those systems where the pump is run by the batteries.

Should I use a battery operated system or one that is directly driven by the solar panels?

Whenever possible, direct drive systems should be selected because they are less expensive and require less maintenance. However, battery operated systems can offer more flexibility in meeting water needs and are a reliable option.

What can I do if my water needs increase in the future?

A solar system can be designed for easy expansion to increase the volume of water pumped. It is often just a matter of adding more solar panels. Expansion should be taken into account during the initial design and setup of the system.

What are the capabilities of solar water pumping systems?

Solar water pumping systems can be designed to meet the needs of any livestock grazing operation.

Solar pumps are available that can pump thousands of gallons of water a day and can pump water up hundreds of feet. The capability of solar water pumping is not a concern but what is important is that the right pumping system is selected to meet your needs.

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