Malta, MT, rancher Dale Veseth has long focused on water developments to improve grazing utilization on his 550-head cow/calf operation.
But four years ago through a Montana State University (MSU) Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative (GLCI) project, he turned his attention to water quality. Veseth was one of three ranchers around the state who took part in field trials aimed at identifying whether cattle prefer water from tanks or reservoirs and what effect water quality has on animal performance.
Not surprisingly, cattle appear to prefer water out of a tank, Veseth found.
In fact, data and observations from the trials show over a 75% preference among cows and calves for tank water over dam water when both sources are near, reports Gene Surber, an MSU Extension natural resource specialist who led the GLCI project. Calves demonstrated the most interest in the tank and were the most consistent users of the tank water, he adds.
Surber suspects cattle prefer tank water because it's typically higher quality due to less sediments, cooler temperatures and easier access. (See "Why Cattle Prefer Tanks.")
The study indicates livestock will select the better quality water when given a choice. "For livestock to perform up to their genetic potential, they must have adequate feed and water," he adds.
Canadian livestock specialist Orin Kenzie agrees. "A good clean supply of high-quality water is absolutely es- sential for cattle," says Kenzie, with the Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development Center in Lethbridge, Alberta. "If producers don't consider water quality, it's going to cost them money in animal performance," he adds.
A Boost To Performance Kenzie has studied water quality since 1992. His trials show a 5-30% weight advantage in calves and yearlings that had access to higher quality water in tanks. Animals with access to fresh water in the trials performed best, but even pumping water from a dugout to a tank makes a difference, Kenzie says.
Similar results have been found in a research trial conducted by Oregon State University (OSU) and the University of Idaho. In the study, riparian areas were not fenced, but water was pumped about 1,500 ft. to upland areas. Over 42 days, cows gained 1/2 lb. more per day and calves gained 1/4 lb. more per day with the off-site watering sources, according to John Tanaka, OSU associate professor in ag and resource economics.
In addition to the boost in performance, Tanaka says with the off-site waterers more even grazing utilization was achieved, which allowed for a longer grazing period (based on a riparian utilization standard) and a larger carrying capacity.
Since becoming involved in the water quality project, Veseth says he's weaned some of his largest weighing calves. But, he says it may not all be due to the improved water quality. He changed his genetics and range management practices as well.
But he's convinced water quality plays an important role. He observed that his calves used the tank most often and says, "I think water quality does help performance. I think it's well worth the investment."
Veseth plans to install several pipe reservoirs with assistance from the Natural Resources Conservation Service over the next few years. Piped water would also provide more grazing access to some of his pastures in the winter, he says.
"Before this project I was primarily developing watering sources to improve livestock distribution, but now I hope to work on water quality, too," says Veseth.
A Win-Win Investment Given animals preference for tank water and the potential boost in performance, Surber suggests ranchers repairing or building water holding points consider investing in off-site tanks.
He points out that the added performance can help pay for the added cost of developing off-site water sources. For example, Surber says a 5% increase in calf weights among 100 calves would pay for one gravity system (about $1,300-1,400).
In the Oregon trial, Tanaka estimated that, with the added weight gains and additional carrying capacity, producers would achieve a payback for a $2,500 water investment in two years. The equipment is expected to have a 10-yea r life.
In addition, given cattle's preference for off-site waterers, they may be a useful management tool to keep cattle out of riparian areas without having to fence around the stream.
In the Montana study, Surber found simply piping water from a reservoir to a tank 60-100 yards away was enough to draw animals to the tank and keep them out of the reservoir.
"The jury's still out on whether or not the riparian area needs to be fenced. I don't see a need for a fence unless there's a critical area that's being overused," Surber says.
Canada's Kenzie adds, "Protecting riparian areas has been hammered to the ground. The thing we've lost is the fact that animals will actually do better if they are limited access to riparian areas. The producer does get some payback."
Montana State University Exten-sion natural resource specialist Gene Surber believes animals may prefer tank water simply because of the method of access.
"It appears cattle prefer water off-stream so they don't have to wade in mud or risk slipping to get a drink of water," he says.
During Surber's studies, cattle were observed to spend 2.5 to 8.5 minutes at the tank before drifting back to the range. Conversely, animals wat-ering at a dugout spent 15 minutes to 3.5 hours at the watering source before returning to the range. Surber speculates that cattle may need to dry off and get comfortable before grazing again.
Keeping animals out of dugouts and streams can also improve water quality. "When animals walk into the water, sediments get resuspended and animals often deposit urine and manure," says Surber.
In the Montana study, total suspended solids were lower in the tank 2 mg/L vs. 50 mg/L in the dam.
Surber also found tank water remained about 5 degrees F cooler. Researchers have found that steers having access to cool drinking water - temperatures between 40 and 65 degrees F are ideal - gained .3 to .4 pounds more per day than those drinking warm water.
Roger Svec wanted to protect the stream and riparian area that winds through his 320-acre farm near Estelline, SD. But, he also needed the water from the stream for the 150-200 stockers he grazes each summer.
Through his involvement with the East River Riparian Project (ERRP), a voluntary program aimed at improving upland and riparian areas, Svec found his solution - a nose pump. The nose pump is a cast iron contraption that makes cattle pump their own water - without electricity.
The pump provides off-stream water while still utilizing the stre-am as the water source. Here's how it works:
The pump consists of a small drinking trough with a metal lever above it. As a cow lowers its head into the trough to drink, its nose pushes the lever back and water is pumped up a hose from the stream.
When the cow lifts its head to leave, a new supply of water gushes into the trough. To get at the water again, the animal's nose must push back on the lever, which pumps more water.
The distance the water may be pumped is limited by the lift required and friction loss of the hose. In Svec's case, he can place the pump about 32 feet away from the stream.
With the pump away from the water, the cattle aren't trampling the riparian area and polluting the stream, Svec says. Since using the nose pump for livestock water, he says the stream banks have grown over with native grasses - without seeding - and the quantity and quality of forage in the riparian zone has improved.
With his water dilemma solved, Svec implemented a rotational grazing system fencing out the entire stream and crossfencing his 320 acres into five smaller pastures. Through his involvement with the ERRP, he received cost-share funds for crossfencing and to purchase two nose pumps ($300-500 each).
As the cattle are moved from one pasture to the next, the nose pumps are also transported. Initially, Svec mounted the pumps on railroad ties, but the units were heavy for one person to move. Now, he has fashioneda cart to move the pumps. A cart is also used to move the snor-kel with its foot valve into the stream.
Svec pulls the units with his ATV.
Svec has used the nose pumps for three summers and says his cattle quickly learn how to use them. Cows have even been observed pumping water for their calves. Montana's Gene Surber says he has heard some successful reports from producers using nose pumps. He says nose pumps appear to work best on level areas, and he suggests one pump per 20 cows.
But, Canada's Orin Kenzie cautions that nose pumps can limit the amount of water a cow gets, since only one cow can drink at a time and she must pump all the water herself.
If livestock can supplement the water they get from the nose pump with water they get out of forage, their needs will be met. But, nose pumps won't provide enough water for cows on dry forage, Kenzie says.
While the nose pumps have worked well for Svec, this summer he drilled a well and plans to pipe a permanent water supply to his pasture.
For more information about nose pumps call 888/NOSEPUMP or visit www. localaccess.com/nosepump/