Model Watering System for Rotational Grazing

Project Overview

FNC93-036
Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1993: $4,832.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1994
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $5,984.00
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:
David Schafer
Schafer Edinburg Farms Inc

Commodities

  • Animals: bovine

Practices

  • Animal Production: pasture renovation, range improvement, grazing - rotational, watering systems
  • Crop Production: nutrient cycling
  • Education and Training: farmer to farmer
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity, soil stabilization
  • Sustainable Communities: sustainability measures

    Summary:

    PROJECT BACKGROUND
    Schafer Farm consists of 540 rolling acres in the Green Hills of northern Missouri, and is divided evenly between woodland and open land. Erosion and high input costs caused a change of direction in 1983 away from crop land toward pasture land and livestock. The farm supports around 140,000 pounds of cattle and 10,000 pounds of sheep as well as chickens and pigs. The majority of theses are marketed directly either as purebred stock or as natural or organic meat. Chemical and fertilizer applications have been eliminated. Other inputs, machinery and fuel use have steadily been reduced. The grazing season has been extended from 260 to as much as 320 days through management intensive grazing while stocking rate has steadily increased. Approaching a year-round grazing system shatters the paradigms of winter management and slashes traditional costs.

    The key elements of our operation are matching cattle reproduction cycles with forage growth cycles and mimicking natural “density” and “migration” to the benefit of soil, livestock and plant. The final major refinement in our system is to have water available in every paddock. Water is a vital element in any livestock program; the location, availability, quality and accessibility are all paramount to the performance of the entire system. Clearly a water system which leads to erosion and mineral transfer is not sustainable or desirable.

    The pilot water system provided water to 31 paddocks and undivided pastures in 2 management intensive grazing “cells” comprising approximately 190 acres. There are 4 other grazing cells on the remaining 350 acres of the farm. This project increases Schafer Farms’ sustainability by reducing erosion from traffic to distant waters, increasing pasture fertility and cattle performance.

    PARTICIPANTS
    Fourteen members of the Green Hills Farm Project (GHFP) assisted with field day activities. The GHFP is a network of primarily farmers and some researchers and consumers sharing an interest in low-cost, forage-based livestock production in the nine county Green Hills area of northern Missouri and beyond.

    Jim Gerrish, Research Assistant Professor at the Forage Systems Research Center (FSRC) in Linneus, MO, discussed management intensive grazing during the field day activities.

    Fred Martz, Superintendent of the FSRC discussed stockpiling for winter feed at the field day.

    Paul Peterson, Research Associate at the FSRC discussed manure distribution in different grazing systems during field day activities.

    Dennis Browning, District Conservation Agent, Missouri Department of Conservation, discussed biodiversity during the field day.

    Jerold Manring of Manring Trenching and Tiling assisted with water system design and installation.

    Eugene and Walter Wilson were involved with pump installation and vault design and building.

    PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
    1) Water management is the most vital element in a management intensive grazing system. Schafer Farm is a model for other farmers considering adoption of this practice. Therefore it is important to be as sound and successful a model as possible.

    In a recent survey of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) landowners and managers in Missouri, the most common reason given fro not maintaining CRP land in forages and bringing in livestock was lack of water. If a cost-effective water system compatible with a management intensive grazing system can be demonstrated, more of the highly erosive CRP land may be kept in forages.

    2) Objective 1, erosion elimination, was achieved through greatly decreased livestock presence in the watering lanes (now access lanes). In the cells with the new water system, cattle no longer walk back and forth between the paddocks and one water source. Bare ground is returning to forages.

    Objective 2, nutrient retention on paddocks, was achieved by decreasing livestock presence in the lanes. By maintaining the cattle in the paddocks (with water), their nutrients remained in the paddocks as well.

    Objective 3, heightened flexibility and management efficiency, was achieved through the ability to have leader-follower sequences of grazing and several herds in one cell. This was not possible using one water source.

    Objective 4, heightened productivity, was achieved by increased manure and urine deposits in the paddocks and by increased efficiency of forage utilization.

    Objective 5, increased biodiversity, was achieved through more accurately mimicking the key pressures which shaped the diverse prairie. Our grazing system can be viewed as a miniature prairie: solar energy is the primary input. Plant, animal and soil health are interdependent. The massive migrating herds, we believe, were chiefly responsible for maintaining, if not also creating, the vast diversity of the prairie. By more closely approximating the density (caused by predators) and migration of these herds biodiversity is increasing.

    Objective 6, demonstration to farmers, was achieved through a field day and farmer to farmer discussion. An article has been submitted to one magazine, another magazine has been queried.

    METHODS
    For the price of construction of a medium sized pond, water was made available within 31 paddocks over an area of 190 acres. The system includes a submersible 3 hp pump and two 120 gallon pressure tanks connected to 1 ¼” PVC pipe and 12 freeze-proof hydrants located at paddock intersections.

    A partially underground vault with an insulated roof was constructed near a pond to house control box, pressure tanks and water valves. A heat bulb remains on during winter months to help prevent freezing.

    Electric cable runs underground into the pond following the 1 ¼” purecore line to the submersible pump. The pump is held stationary by marine cable anchored on the shore opposite the vault and attaching to floats from which the pump is suspended about four feet below the water level. The pump is in 15’ of water when the pond is full. A screen was wired over the pump inlet as a filter. To prevent the purecore pipe from floating, weights were attached.

    Trenches leading out of the pressure tank house were dug 36-40” deep to get below the frost line. Twenty foot sections of 1 ¼” PVC were glued together and laid in the trenches. A backhoe was used to make a pit for the hydrants and to remove large rocks in the trenches. A ¾” purecore line tow or more feet in length from a tee in the PVC insured a “shock-absorbing” effect should the hydrant be knocked by an errant vehicle or rubbed by an itchy animal. The hydrants were plumbed to rise under or near fence lines to avoid these types of mishaps.

    Plastic or brass fittings (no galvanized) were used. Drain-and-waste hydrants were used. These allow the water in the hydrant to drain out when the hydrant is shut off to avoid freezing in the winter. A gravel pit was made beneath each hydrant to allow draining water to escape. The shortest possible hydrants were installed to minimize water in the gravel pit as north Missouri has poorly draining clay soils. For this reason we also installed cheap plastic garden shut-off valves on the hydrants for summer use. This way n waster drains during the summer as the hydrant valve remains in the open position.

    High quality, lifetime warranty hoses of varying lengths were purchased and connect hydrants to portable 25 gallon water in each paddock. The waters were made by cutting 50 gallon drums (free or very cheap from bottlers, cleaning liquid handlers, etc.) in half. The bottom sides were used for mineral feeders while the ops, having threaded fittings, were used for the waters. A cheap (410) float valve was mounted on a block of wood bolted to the waterer.

    The threaded fittings came in handy to “winterize” the waterers. A plastic or brass ¾” threaded nipple was pumped through the fitting in the waterer. On the inside was attached a flexible house. To the outside was attached an elbow into which a 6’ length of ¾” PVC pipe was inserted. By preventing the float valve from shutting off the water would overflow into the flexible house and away from the waterer through the PVC. Although primitive, this system proved cheap and effective in temperatures about 20 degrees.

    To prevent the float valve from shutting off we drilled a hole through the top of the unit, tapped threads for an eye bolt and screwed the eye bolt through the hole until it pushed down slightly on the float, preventing the stopper from completely seating. A set screw on the eye bolt secured it and allowed for fine tuning the overflow. An existing stream of a pencil diameter is about the right amount of overflow to prevent freezing.

    RESULTS
    There were a few obvious results that didn’t require measuring: 1. Several groups of stock were pastured within an area previously restricted to only one group. 2. Lanes experienced much less traffic and began to support plant growth. 3. Cattle didn’t’ have to go as far to get a drink.

    Pasture fertility increase can only be assumed to have occurred since the animals no longer eliminated wastes in the alley or former watering area. No attempts were made to measure manure pat spacing or take soil samples though these would, presumably, be significant. That research has been conducted – with significant results – by FSRC personnel, especially Paul Peterson and discussed by him during the Schafer Farm field day.

    Erosion was presumably reduced in the lanes due to more ground cover and less hoof damage though no measurements were taken.

    Overall, our goals were met. The project was encouraging enough that we added another 6400’ of pipe and 11 hydrants to the system in 1994 and plan a similar addition in 1995 to complete the water system.

    Several means of reducing costs and making the system more efficient have occurred since the original, SARE-funded project. They include the pump, pump location, vault, pressure tanks, trencher hire, water line location, waterer size, gravel pit and hydrant length and will be discussed in order.

    A 3 horsepower pump was recommended by engineers who were told we needed enough pump to deliver water to 6 sites at 10 gallons per minute through 1 ¼” PVC pipe. They did their jobs. The limiting factor, however, is the constriction at the end of the line. With a ¾” line and cheap valve the desired delivery cannot be achieved. With a 1 ¼” line going all the way to a “full-flow” type valve it probably could be achieved.

    Economics were top priority in considering alternatives in hydrants, floats and water tanks. We reasoned that 30 large stationary tanks (at $300 each) and a smaller pump would not serve as well as a larger pump and fewer, portable, small tanks,. Probably a 1.2 to ¾ horsepower pump would work fine for up to 3 or 4 miles.

    The in-pond pump location allowed use of the efficient, submersible type pump. Additionally, it would not freeze in the water. Only after installation did we hear the horror story of three boys drowning in a pond in which a submersible pump had been installed. Apparently they were somehow stunned by electricity form the pump as it kicked in while they were swimming. That ruined a perfectly good recreational pond and hastened our fence building project around the pond!

    We would recommend the pump be placed in the vault on shore along with controls, valves and pressure tank. The vault itself needn’t be elaborate. One man cut a hole in the top of a septic tank, inserted a section of sewer pipe, stuck the underground with a cap for the sewer pipe and put pump, pressure tank, control and valves all down in it.

    As recommended by the engineers at Red Jacket, we purchased two, 120 gallon pressure tanks to meet the demands we anticipated for this system. Since then, we have encountered other systems with one comparatively small pressure tank (15-25 gallon) which deliver approximately the same outputs as ours, about 5 gallons per minute. They must have large water tanks as in-field reservoirs and probably pay a higher electric bill.

    With no experience trenching, we hired the trencher at 30 cents per foot in 1993. In 1994, collaborating with five other farmers in the Green Hills Farm Project, we hired a machine and ran it ourselves for about 13 cents per foot. That was the principle cost savings over the 1993 work. The following is a complete cost breakdown per foot in 1994:

    6420’ 1 ¼” PVC pipe…………..15 cents/foot
    Trencher rental (and new teeth)…13 cents/foot
    12 hydrants …………………….6 cents/foot
    Supplies and fittings ……………6 cents/foot
    Backhoe ………………………..3 cents/foot
    TOTAL …………………………43 cents/foot

    Average cost per foot among the other farmers in the GHFP ranged from 36 to 48 cents.

    In other words, a $5000 investment (roughly the cost of a medium sized farm pond) will pay for 2 miles of water system with hydrants every 500’.

    One of the primary determinants in cost of the water line is trenching speed. Ours varied from over 6’/min. to .5’/min. with an average around 2’/min. Water line location is important because trenching along ridge tops is much easier than trenching through rocky slopes and valleys.

    Waterer size must be determined by number of stock. We opted for portability and economy in our 25 gallon plastic waterers. Despite small paddock size (3 acres or less), we still had some problems in host weather with cattle draining and tipping the waterers. This must be addressed by increasing waterers, increasing waterer size, using full flow valves or decreasing number of head per herd.

    Several extra considerations must be made to avoid freezing. We chose drain and waste hydrants and consequently needed to provide a gravel pit for graining water. Initially we made a pit large enough to hold two 10 gallon buckets of gravel. Although to our knowledge we haven’t had any frozen hydrants due to poor water drainage, we decided to be more conservative and scoop a backhoe bucket’s worth of dirt out below the hydrant and fill that with gravel. We have poorly draining clay subsoil.

    For the same reason of preventing hydrant freezing due to poor water drainage, we chose the shortest hydrant length possible. This simply puts a smaller volume of water into the drainage pit each time the hydrant is shut off and the water drains out.

    A change in outreach we would consider is our field day. This proved to be a monumental task, even with a lot of outside help. Alice has sworn she won’t do another! Perhaps we tried to illustrate too much. We combined our field day outreach of this grant with out 1994 SARE grant for pastured poultry and hogs reasoning that overlapping interests would bring a larger crowd and expose all to both ideas. The expenses will be divided between the 2 grants. A successful field day, which we felt we had, takes military-operation coordination and many helpers. Magazine articles receive much wider exposure, but lack the complementing aspect of inter-related stops on a field day. We therefore feel field days are very important.

    If we had another field day we would allocate grant funds for out time involved. Secondly, a “Guide to a Successful Field Day” would be a very handy reference for your grantees. We used such a guide prepared by the American Gelbvieh Association though not tailored specifically for sustainable grants.

    DISCUSSION
    We learned it is an empowering feeling to have access to water at many points on the farm. Not only does it simplify management considerations, but it also releases the imagination to explore previously impossible alternatives. (Trees, border crops, irrigation, for example).

    The SARE-funded project was encouraging enough for us to expand the water system over the entire farm. It has made us more of a sustainable operation, a better model and more efficient. Benefits of erosion control are just appearing. We anticipate seeing that more clearly in years to come.

    We highly recommend the adoption of MIG, first considering where water lines will run if not actually installing water lines before any new fence is built.

    The economic, environmental and social impacts of this practice is phenomenal. Water availability has been identified as the primary barrier to livestock production on CRP land when contracts expire. If enough CRP land holders realize the ease of installation and cost-effectiveness of water systems and MIG, many will pursue livestock rather than crop production to the benefit of their personal income, their natural resources and their local communities.

    Average annual returns per acre on crops grown on highly erodible lands in Missouri and surrounding states are poor. Soil losses for the state of Missouri are still almost double the “tolerable” level of 3 tons per acre so environmental gains could be very significant. Family farms remain vulnerable due to the squeeze of higher input costs and lower market prices. This project addresses those economic, environmental and social problems directly.
    Through MIG, the FSRC has shown a potential doubling of pasture production (like owning twice as many acres). At the same time, soils are accruing organic matter and requiring less fertilizer; watersheds are more absorbent – protecting society downstream as well as insuring the MIG practicing farmer of continued production during drought. As a livestock producer, the farmer receives no costly subsidies from the government commodity programs. This saves taxpayer money and empowers the farmer who operates without government handouts, both worthy social impacts.

    Less machinery and fossil fuel dependence will also contribute to better farm returns and more farmers on the land. More productive pastures will encourage farmers to keep calve longer. This will result in more local income, less feedlot time for cattle and less feeding of grains to ruminants. The more natural treatment of livestock, that is, less confinement, less antibiotics, less concentrate feeding, etc. will produce healthier and tastier meats and consequently, healthier and more numerous meat consumers.

    OUTREACH
    Field day – a field day was held October 1,1994 and included presentations of costs and benefits of water in every paddock, manure distribution, stockpiling for winter grazing and MIG in general. 127 people registered which did not include children, some spouses, 14 Green Hills Farm Project members, 6 merchants and those who did not sign in.

    Upon registering, guests were asked to choose from six topics which they were most interested in. 100 (79%) checked grazing management; 83 (65%) checked low input cattle; 40 (31%) checked Gelbvieh; 34 (26%) checked chickens; 21 (17%) checked pigs, and 18 (14%) checked food. Obviously, many people checked more than one category.

    An exit survey was completed by 41 people (31%). We asked where they lived- city, town, farm; how they would improve the field day; how they heard about the field day; how they rated the nine stops; which stops gave them ideas they could use, and; which of the practices demonstrated were they already using. They were finally asked if they would like more information on several topics. An optional space for name and address was provided.

    It should be pointed out that Jerry Jost kindly consented to represent SARE at one of the stops to explain what SARE was, the producer grants and how to apply for them, etc. On the section of the survey where the nine stops were rated for interest before and after the field day, sustainable Ag grants was the only stop which had a significant increase in interest after the field day.

    Another interesting side note was the relatively large number of Amish and Mennonite people in attendance. As those communities adopt more sustainable practices on the community level they will become better and better models for modern communities to study.

    The field day was advertised through the Green Hills Farm Project, the Stockman Grass Farmer magazine, the Missouri Ruralist, the American Forage and Grassland Council newsletter, the Forage Systems Research Center newsletter, and the University of Missouri Extension news service. It was also announced in several local papers and on radio stations.

    Local media covered the event. A University of Missouri student made a report on the field day.

    At the end of this report can be found the press release sent to approximately 30-40 magazines and newspapers in the area, thank you letters to us, and thank you letter to Green Hills Farm Project helpers. [Editor’s note: The press release could not be posted online. If you would like to see the press release please email us at ncrsare@umn.edu or call us at 800-529-1342. Thanks]

    Slide presentation – information from this project will be incorporated into a slide presentation made four times per year for approximately 200 participants in the Management Intensive Grazing schools at the Forage Systems Research Center of the University of Missouri in Linneus. Both Schafer and Dobbs speak periodically, this information will be presented when appropriate.

    Report – a report – essentially sections 1 and 2 will be made available to interested parties upon request.

    Articles – an article has been submitted to the Stockman/Grass Farmer magazine to which Schafer contributes irregularly. That article may appear in January or February. Slightly different forms will also be submitted to the Missouri Ruralist magazine and the American Forage and Grassland Council newsletter. Queries may be made to other farm magazines. It is anticipated that future articles will be written by others for farm magazines and include some of the SARE-funded project information. To date about 20 articles have been written in various magazines and newspapers about Schafer Farm.

    Phone calls – as a result of publicity, numerous phone calls from farmers are received

    Farmer visits – as a result of articles, farm demonstrations and speaking engagements numerous farmers request personal farm visits. These have always been obliged. Farmer who visits to inspect purebred livestock often are also interested in the management of livestock and resources.

    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.