Final Report for FS09-235

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2009: $9,970.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: Southern
State: Alabama
Principal Investigator:
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Project Information

Abstract:

As drought conditions have increased in regularity and extremity in the southeastern United States and competition for water rights has become fiercer, it becomes apparent that we need more appropriate use of our water resources. The use of mobile and permanent structures to capture water is a relatively inexpensive option that can significantly supplement water use on a farm. The owners of Rosita’s, a small diversified farm in north Alabama, established water catchment systems on multiple buildings of various sizes and uses to assess the potential for water catchment and storage. A significant volume of water was quickly collected, and was limited primarily by the storage capacity of the system. Pigs and cows also posed some problems by disturbing the smaller and less secure units. In general, the systems were inexpensive and stored a useful quantity of water, especially in more remote locations around the farm. Any efforts to capture the majority of water collected would require a much larger storage structure.

Introduction

Rosita’s is a small diversified farm in Hartselle, Alabama. We raise cows, pigs, chickens, laying hens, broilers, bees, and mixed vegetables on 25 acres. Most of these products are marketed directly to customers through on-farm sales and local farmers markets. The livestock, especially the cattle, is rotated through most of the 25 acres, and we use mobile, semi-mobile, and permanent structures to house the chickens and pigs. We were interested in evaluating the use of these smaller structures to strategically capture water around the farm.

We established water catchment systems using gutters and barrels or larger water tanks on eight structures around the farm ranging in size from an 8×8’ pig shelter to a 2400 square foot barn. We estimated the potential water catchment for each in a year with average precipitation, based on the square footage of the roof and using a water catchment calculator (Brown, 2008). Total potential catchment for the eight structures was almost 135,000 gallons in a year with 50 inches of precipitation.

Project Objectives:

We will use existing structures on our farm to set up water catchment systems. The cost of establishment, water inputs and outputs from this system, and storage capacity requirements will be evaluated to see how the costs and benefits balance out in the end. This evaluation will be both on a farm scale and for each individual catchment system.

We will measure the amount of water caught, the amount of storage needed to keep this water for future use, the amount of water used for livestock watering, hog wallows, and irrigation, and how that translates into a whole-farm water budget. Dr. Joe Brown at the University of Alabama and Dr. Cathy Sabota from Alabama A&M University will help in designing an appropriate data collection system; both have worked to develop appropriate water catchment systems for small farmers. We will use eight permanent and mobile structures: two mobile chicken coops, two mobile hog houses, the barn, a shed, the house, and the covered gravity wagon. The total square footage of these catchment areas is approximately 5600. These structures will demonstrate a variety of alternatives for water catchment, the cost to make the system work, and the cost and/or savings for the producer.

Cooperators

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Research

Materials and methods:

Our plan was to install the water catchment systems in 2009 and monitor water catchment in 2009-2010, measuring rainfall and actual water caught. As often happens, the first year of the project did not go as predicted. 2009 was an unusually wet year, with a state-wide average of 75 inches of rainfall (NOAA, 2010). In addition, we lost our favorite old oak tree (and a number of others) during a June thunderstorm. One tree fell on part of the barn, which was already in need of some repair, and the roof of the house was damaged. We postponed the guttering of these buildings and instead spent the summer replacing the roof on the house and eventually replacing the barn with a new pole barn.

We began the project that year by catching water from the playhouse, shed and chicken coops. It quickly became evident that water catchment was not the real question, but water storage. Our intention was to measure the amount of water caught after each rain event, but the barrels and tanks quickly filled up and were not adequate to hold the amounts of water that were being collected. The stationary chicken coop, for example, with 288 square feet of roof, could capture 144 gallons of water for each inch of rain. With a 275 gallon tank, a two inch rain would fill it. The 50 gallon barrel attached to the mobile coop would also overflow with any significant rainfall, as would the multiple 50 gallon barrels catching water under the playhouse. We quickly abandoned the idea of measuring actual water collection.

We did measure rainfall using a wireless electronic rain gauge. The gauge generally worked well, but the records are not perfect thanks to occasional dead batteries and clogged buckets that were not apparent until after the heavy rains weren’t captured. Measurements were lower but comparable to local records. This is most likely due to the difficulties of capturing every drop of rain on the farm, though it does lend some credence to our feeling it rains more everywhere but here.

We also calculated the expense of installing gutters and tanks to evaluate the initial investment and amount of time it would take to pay for itself under different water cost scenarios.

Research results and discussion:

The cost and availability of water has not been a limiting factor in our production. As a supplemental source of water, especially in areas that are not piped, the catchment systems were definitely helpful. If water does become more valuable in the future, it seems likely that expanding water storage capacity would become an economical alternative. However, capturing all the water that could possibly be stored would probably require ponds rather than tanks. Water catchment and storage also has potential in remote areas where drilling a well and installing an electrical pump would be an unrealistic initial investment.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

We held an open house in October, 2010, to highlight the catchment systems. We offered tours in English and Spanish, and 35 people attended, including six commercial farmers and twelve home gardeners and urban farmers. We printed and distributed 100 copies of the Alabama Cooperative Extension publication “Rainwater Harvesting for Irrigation Water” (www.aces.edu/pubs/docs/U/UNP-0026/) at the open house and other events over the winter.

We also posted the information on our study, including photographs, links, and an article on the project, on our website at www.rositasfarm.com/water.htm. The website is being updated, but we hope that the information on water catchment and other sustainable production methods will be a useful resource in the future.

Project Outcomes

Recommendations:

Future Recommendations

The cost and availability of water has not been a limiting factor in our production. As a supplemental source of water, especially in areas that are not piped, the catchment systems were definitely helpful. If water does become more valuable in the future, it seems likely that expanding water storage capacity would become an economical alternative. However, capturing all the water that could possibly be stored would probably require ponds rather than tanks. Water catchment and storage also has potential in remote areas where drilling a well and installing an electrical pump would be an unrealistic initial investment.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.