Will Your Cows Dig Dugouts?

Water is life: it is the most essential nutrient for livestock, yet something that we may take for granted in Ontario, a region rich in water resources. Beef cattle use a lot of the resource. They aren't very efficient at recycling water (compared with animals like sheep), so they need to drink a lot every day. Lactating beef cows require about 115 litres (25 gallons) per day during summer, while stocker cattle need about 70 litres (15 gallons) each day.1 It's important to realize that cattle performance on pasture can be limited by lack of easy access to clean, abundant water, just like in a feedlot. In many pasture situations, providing cattle with adequate access to water can be challenging. Dugouts offer an alternative. They are man-made ponds which offer a way of creating a water source on pastures which are a long ways from a well or natural water source.

Do You Need a Dugout?

Beef cattle like to drink 3 to 5 times a day. Many pasture cattle have to trek long distances to get to water, cutting down on grazing time, and requiring extra energy expenditure. Distance to water can also limit the amount of pasture area that the cattle will effectively graze. Recommendations for maximum distances to water on pasture vary, depending on the intensity of the grazing system.

With high intensity systems, cattle grazing distribution may be negatively affected if cattle have to walk more than 250 m (820ft) to the water source. Along with decreased forage utilization, the cattle will spend more time in the area adjacent to the water source, and manure nutrients will be concentrated there, rather than being evenly distributed across the pasture.2

For more extensive situations, the distance to a water source can significantly restrict the amount of area which will be grazed. In arid rangelands, cattle will seldom graze farther than 1100 m (3600 ft) from a water source, and when portable water sources are relocated, they will move their grazing radius to remain within this proximity.3

Dugout Design

Dugouts are constructed ponds, and in Ontario they usually trap and contain ground water. (Surface runoff may also help fill dugouts, but this is not a good thing unless the runoff is free of contaminants.) While dugouts can be a good option when other water sources are too far away, they should be treated with the same care as rivers, streams and natural ponds … we have to ensure both the water source and the cattle are managed in a sustainable way.

Locate the dugout as centrally as possible in the grazed area, giving preference to areas which stay greenest throughout the summer. If you're not sure where the dugout should go, dig some test holes to evaluate a few potential sites. The sizing of a dugout is dependant on the amount of water it is expected to supply and the hydraulic characteristics of the soil where it is located. For a given water volume, it is better to construct a deeper dugout with a smaller surface area, rather than a shallow dugout with a larger surface area. A smaller surface area will result in less loss due to evaporation and require less fencing to protect it from the cattle. Depth will be limited by the size and type of machinery used, depth to ground water, and depth to bedrock. In medium to heavy textured soils the end slopes should be 4:1 (4 units horizontal to 1 unit vertical) with side slopes of 1.5:1. In lighter textured soils, make flatter side slopes with a ratio of 2:1. 4

Managing Your Dugout

It is critical to prevent cattle access to the water. Cattle traffic along the banks will erode soil into the water, causing silting of the water and filling in the dugout. Cattle manure in the water delivers pathogens and nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous, contaminating the water source. These pathogens can amplify and spread disease within your herd. Excess nutrients will increase the growth of algae and set up conditions for the appearance of toxic blue-green algae. On top of all of these factors, cattle prefer to drink clean water, so providing an "out of the dugout" watering system will maximize water intake and thus cattle performance.4

Fence cattle out of the dugout, with a minimum grassed buffer strip of 30 m (100ft) between the edge of the water and the fencing. The type of watering system needed will depend on the number of cattle. The key concept is having a pump which draws clean water from the pond and sends it either directly to a water trough or to a storage tank. The pump can be solar electric, gasoline powered, or even cattle powered (nose pumps). Locate the intake about a foot below the surface, attached to a float. The pump can feed an elevated storage tank which in turn feeds a stock trough via gravity and a standard float valve.

If algae growth becomes a problem, you can install an aerator (solar or wind powered) which will keep water circulating and prevent the conditions that cause "blooms" of algae. In extreme circumstances, chemicals may be needed to control algae.

Regulatory Note: In Ontario, no permit is required to take water for livestock production.5

1National Research Council. Nutrient Requirements of Beef Cattle. 7th Rev. Ed. Update 2000. Retrieved Feb 2011

2 Gerrish, J.R., P.R Peterson, and F.A Martz. Proximity of Water Affects Grazing Distribution and Soil Nutrient Cycling. International Grasslands Symposium 2007. Retrieved Feb 2011.

3Walter D. Willms, Orin R. Kenzie, Tim A. McAllister, Doug Colwell, Doug Veira, John F. Wilmshurst, Toby Entz, and Merle E. Olson Effects of water quality on cattle performance. Journal of Range Management. Sept 2002. Retrieved Feb 2011

4AAFC Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration Thinking About Constructing a Dugout? Retrieved Feb 2011.

5 Ontario Ministry of the Environment. Green Facts: Permit to Take Water
Retrieved Feb 2011

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