Re-distributing water


One of the greatest challenges to cattle producers in the western United States is supplying enough water to meet peak water demands of range cattle. Like humans, cattle can survive on minimal water for a long period of time—but for ranchers trying to make a profit from cattle, the animals’ mere survival is neither profitable nor humane. In the interests of both profit and husbandry, cattle must thrive.

In the cattle industries, profits accrue from quantitative gain, whether in the form of meat on beef cattle or daily volume of milk from dairy cows. Without adequate water, cattle cannot produce meat or milk efficiently. Water needs are not the same for all cattle; they vary with the animal’s development and with time of year due to physiological stresses. For example, in early spring when temperatures are mild and grasses are green and moist, adult dairy cattle may require only 10 gallons of water per day. Contrast that to a hot day in midsummer, when browse is scarce and dry, and water requirements can exceed 25 gallons per day. Multiply those 25 gallons by the numbers in your herd, and you get an idea of how wide-ranging water demands can be. (For more on livestock water requirements, see

A significant challenge in supplying water for cattle is getting the water where you want it—where they need it. On a dairy or feedlot, water can be supplied from a single source because cattle are concentrated, but in a rangeland setting, cattle graze where the grasses are, so water must be well distributed throughout the range. In open rangeland with limited developed water, cattle are often forced to walk long distances to access water. That’s bad, from a producer’s point of view, because the more cattle have to travel, the less time they spend feeding, resting and digesting, and gaining weight. In addition, when walking independently to and from a fixed water source, cattle typically take the most efficient route. This means they repeatedly tread the same path, leading to a phenomenon called “trailing.” Livestock trailing is an erosional feature on the landscape where cattle trample and compact soils through repeated use. Compacted soils don’t grow plants. An area compacted by trailing is devoid of food and effectively eliminated from the productive landscape. Furthermore, heavy rains travel swiftly across compacted areas, turning the trails into cutting streams that scour away precious soils.

When water resources are concentrated, cattle often loiter around the source, creating a situation in which plants near the water are grazed too frequently and plants far from the source receive little or no attention. To achieve evenly and efficiently grazed rangelands, water must be where the cattle are, as dictated by where the producer wants them to be. In “mob” (also called targeted) grazing, cattle are moved frequently (sometimes more than once a day); getting water to the cattle at so many intervals can be an extreme challenge, and is often the limiting factor in an open-range mob-grazing operation.

Portable troughs can be skidded (empty, with an ATV) to almost any location to take the water to cattle, rather than having cattle have to stay close to water. Portables are gravity-fed from storage tanks or permanent troughs.

In the fall of 2014, well into a period of prolonged drought in California, the Sonoma Mountain Ranch Preservation Foundation (SMRPF) applied to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for financial assistance under its Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), to help develop reliable rangeland resources for watering cattle here on our Mitsui Ranch property. Drought wasn’t the principal reason for seeking help from the federal government (conversion to a mob-grazing program was), but it was a timely factor in discussing water needs. NRCS Rangeland Management Specialist Kristan Flynn visited the ranch to survey the site and brainstorm ideas for the most efficient system of water delivery. She developed a preliminary plan and budget, and specified a design. Our application was approved in early 2015 and we immediately contracted with Harmony Farm Supply & Nursery in Sebastopol to design an engineered plan. Irrigation engineer Chad Griffith drew up all the plans, and Harmony Farm supplied most of the necessary materials, including pipe, pumps, solar arrays, and storage tanks.

We excavated more than 2.75 miles of trench through difficult terrain.

Over the next 6 months, we excavated more than 2.75 miles of trenches to install water pipe and electrical conduit connecting water resources to water storage and delivery facilities. The beauty of the system lies in its design, and the fact that the sun provides all the power we need to make it work. Briefly: at two locations on the ranch, solar panel­–powered pumps push water uphill from existing stock ponds to storage tanks located on high points. From there, water flows via gravity, downhill to permanent (and portable)troughs scattered across the grazing range. As cattle drink and pull down water levels, float gauges in the tanks activate the pumps to refill the tanks. When no cattle are present in the water storage area, the pumps are easily switched off so that no extra water is wasted through evaporation. Water is provided to the cattle on an as-needed basis; when there’s no demand, the source-water resources become exclusively available to pond-dwelling organisms such as the threatened California red-legged frog and other wildlife.

Installing two of eight 5,000-gallon storage tanks.

At two additional sites on the Mitsui Ranch, we used existing “cowboy spring boxes” to divert water to temporary storage tanks equipped with solar pumps. Cowboy spring boxes (historically built of redwood lumber or concrete) were constructed by early ranchers to capture spring water where it seeps from the ground. The boxes were often plumbed, so that water could be diverted elsewhere. That was the case with the spring boxes on the ranch. From these temporary capture tanks, water is pumped uphill to be distributed gravitationally, as with the new system. But in the case of the spring box–fed system, when water is not being used and the pumps are switched off, the springs overflow and the spring boxes run freely (as they always have), available for wildlife and the wetland plants that depend on the natural seepage in spring.

Transfer tank receives water via gravity floe from cowboy spring box. A solar powered pump inside the transfer tank pumps water uphill to large storage tanks.

Working with the NRCS and Harmony Farm, we now have a water storage capacity of 40,000 gallons, which can be delivered by gravity to any location on the ranch and into portable troughs. Powered by the sun, the system is used on an as-needed basis and makes water available to wildlife and aquatic organisms even while in use.

The system is powered by free energy harnessed from the sun.

We’d like to acknowledge the contributions of the following agencies and individuals; without them, our solar-operated mob-grazing program might not have been realized. The Natural Resources Conservation Service reimbursed the cost-share amount promised in the EQIP contract within 45 days of signing off on the project. Special thanks to Kristan Flynn, who shepherded this project from start to finish and was a delight to work with. This project was Chad Griffith’s first opportunity to work with the NRCS, and he leapt the learning curve quickly. Chad was fast, cheerful, and always available for questions. Harmony Farm provided excellent materials at a very reasonable price, and they cheerfully delivered to our remote site. Thank you to civil engineer Peter Schurch, who reviewed and stamped the infrastructure design. NRCS engineer Carolyn Jones provided not only guiding oversight on the project, but comic relief and wit to our onsite meetings…thank you Carolyn! Finally, NRCS/Point Blue biologist Suzie Winquist was an often-present advocate for wildlife, monitoring to be sure that no frogs were harmed during the project. She hiked many miles, mapping and reviewing the project, and processed most of the paperwork for reports and final approval. With this team of professionals and their employers, I would gladly undertake this project again.

An appreciation pause in the installation work at High Top.