An Innovative Watering System for Pasturing and Wintering Cattle

Pine River Ranch is a cow/calf operation located just north of Pinewood in the Rainy River District in Northwestern Ontario. It is owned by Amos and Heidi Brielmann and their son Timo. The farm comprises approximately 5000 acres of hay and pasture land. They have a herd of 550 Angus and Angus cross cows which they calve in May, on pasture. The focus of the farm is to sell yearlings, usually in September. All calves are wintered and then grazed in the following year.

In the 1990's Pine River Ranch began to examine the environmental impact of its farming practices. The whole farm is in permanent hay or pasture so soil erosion was not a major factor except along the river banks and creeks that the cattle could access. The Pine River and its tributaries flow for miles throughout the property. Realizing that cattle not only deposit manure along the waterways but also destabilize the banks, they established fenced-off riparian zones along all waterways on the property.

Every fenced-off creek or waterway provided a new challenge in developing alternative water sources for the 1500 head of grazing and overwintering cattle. After extensive consultations with different grazing schools, the Ministry of Natural Resources, the First Nations Watershed Program, the Rainy River Soil & Crop Improvement Association and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food & Rural Affairs, they decided to drill wells at key locations and pump the water through pipelines to multiple locations. This system provided water to about two thirds of their pastures. For the remaining pastures and the wintering lot, where there was no available hydro, they began researching solar powered dugout pumps and solar powered deep well pumps.

Their intensive grazing program meant different requirements for water availability and pumping distances. However, they were grazing relatively large groups, meaning a solar powered system had to be designed that could supply enough water to satisfy a large group of animals at all times. If water was not always available, the cattle would tend to gather around the water trough and spend less time grazing. Another challenge was to provide a reliable water source for cattle year round, for those grazing in late fall (October) and early spring (April) when waterlines were susceptible to freezing during the night, and especially for the calves and young cows kept in the wintering lot.

Over the years, and with assistance from Kelln Solar, a small company from Lunsden, Saskatchewan, they were able to overcome most of the challenges. Kelln Solar's major input was in helping to design the water system at Pine River Ranch's wintering lot. This site requires a system capable of supplying enough water for up to 600 calves and an additional 250 cows in peak times - and it has to remain operational at -40 C. The area of the wintering lot is approximately 105 acres. This requires water to be pumped 200 metres in one direction and over 600 metres in another direction in order to service three separate watering locations within the wintering lot. The solar setup had to be able to efficiently pump water from a 100 metre deep drilled well. The lift requirements and the friction losses throughout the system had to be overcome with the least amount of energy use possible.

A high efficiency 60 volt ETA submersible pump was installed. This pump is capable of pumping over 40 litres per minute through a 600+ metre waterline. To keep the pump operating requires nine, 128 watt solar panels which charge ten, 6 volt Trojan batteries. The batteries are housed in a small shed near the well. To prevent drinking water from freezing, large double-walled insulated plastic water troughs were installed. As there is no power supply to prevent ice build-up, the troughs were then covered with an insulated lid in which several drink tubes were installed (Figure 1). These drink tubes are round and large enough for a cow to put her nose in to drink. The plastic material which they are made of has a very smooth surface and the drink tubes widen out towards the bottom, so any ice build-up can be easily pushed down by the cattle. The water will then flow up around the ice permitting the animal to drink. When the animal leaves, the ice will flow up to the top of the tube again and act as a lid.

These energy-free winter water troughs are an excellent invention requiring absolutely no energy and minimal maintenance. The system can efficiently supply water to a large group of animals in a remote area (Figure 2). The size of the water trough is crucial since the energy in the water will prevent ice build-up over an extended period of cold weather. The experience of the Brielmanns has brought them to the conclusion that twice the volume of the holding capacity of the water tank has to be circulated each day in order for the heat in the water to keep the drinking tubes from freezing completely.

The final system was put in place in 2005 and has now been used successfully for eight winters. Only a couple of changes have been made during that time. One has been to improve the water troughs by installing a different type of lid that is better insulated and fits more tightly over the troughs. This tends to keep the ice build up in the drinking tubes to a minimum. The other change has been to upgrade the solar panels to ones which are more efficient, especially on overcast days.

The knowledge gained at Pine River Ranch has led to assisting other producers in the area in designing solar powered winter water systems of their own, from both wells and dugouts. These systems allow for feeding cattle during the winter months away from the barnyard in areas which do not have hydro. This is beneficial in that it reduces the manure loads in barnyard areas and has the animals spreading the manure naturally.

The development of this watering system, in conjunction with the establishment of the riparian zones along the farm's waterways, was recognized with a Premier's Award for Agri-Food Innovation in 2006.

Image of insulated water trough

Figure 1. Insulated water trough; solar panels to right.

Figure 2. Cattle in wintering yard.

Figure 2. Cattle in wintering yard.

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