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Management-Intensive Grazing: Grazing System Design: Grazing System Infrastructure

Water Systems

One of the most significant challenges of designing a grazing system is ensuring that clean drinking water is available to grazing animals in each of the paddocks that are grazed. Though there are significant costs associated with providing water in this way, a sound water distribution system can improve animal performance and the efficiency of grazing.

The Necessity of Water
Water is the nutrient that animals consume the most of, yet its importance is often overlooked. Water is critically important in virtually every process in the animal body. The amount of water that is needed by an individual animal varies considerably. Primarily, water consumption is dependent upon air temperature, dry matter intake, diet composition, lactation, activity level, and age, though many other factors will also influence water intake rate (Table 1).

Table 1. The effect of air temperature on the rate of water intake of beef cattle.
Temp, F
Dry Cow
Lact. Cow
gal/lb DM
---------- gallons/day ----------
Source: Winchester and Morris, 1956. J.Ani. Sci. 15:722-740.

Effects of Water Source on Animal Performance
Unfortunately, the rate of water intake is often restricted because of inadequate access to water, insufficient water volume, the location of the water source, water temperature, and water quality. As a result, animal performance or the efficiency of the grazing system can suffer.

Ensuring sufficient access to water is critically important when sizing waterers and rates of water supply. As illustrated in Table 1, a lactating cow may consume 20 gallons of water per day. Inadequate space for animals to drink or insufficient supply volume will reduce animal productivity.

The location of the water source can greatly affect grazing behavior and patterns. Animals tend to congregate around the water source. As a result, they will focus their grazing on areas near the water source. For example, research has shown that when cattle must walk distances of more than 800 feet to water, grazing uniformity and grazing efficiency decreases. Thus, it is recommended that water be available to the grazing animals within at least 600 to 800 feet.

Water is critically important in moderating an animal's body temperature.  Research has shown that water temperature can greatly reduce heat stress and is associated with higher levels of feed. Ideally, water temperature should be maintained between 60° and 80°F. Using well or spring water, insulated drinking receptacles, and/or shades over the water tank can reduce heating from the summer sun and moderate temperature changes in the winter.

Though it depends on the source, water may contain high-levels of performance reducing micro-organisms, total dissolved solids (TDS), total suspended solids (TSS), nitrates, pesticide residues, or other quality concerns. Numerous studies have shown that the availability of clean water can increase animal performance by more than 20%.

Of course, one major source of clean water in a MIG system is that it is contained in fresh forage. Lush pasture can be 70-90% water and, thus, can decrease the amount of water that must be supplied in the water system. However, this varies tremendously and should not be considered reliable. There is no substitute for allowing plenty of fresh water to any animal, particularly when heat stress is a concern.

Distribution of Water
It is unlikely that your farm has an ample supply of clean water in each of the paddocks that you have planned for your MIG system. As a result, a pressurized water system should be considered. Though there is a substantial cost to pressurizing and distributing water, pressurized systems (either sourced by well, river, or municipal water) may be the best solution to the need for clean, reliable water.  

Pressurized water distribution can be a very flexible system. This is especially true for temporary systems, where permanent underground pipes are outfitted with quick-connect couplers so that small troughs can be easily transported from paddock to paddock. This helps minimize maintenance costs, reduce labor needs, and add flexibility. Of course, in more large scale systems, permanent structures may be more appropriate.

There are several other ways that water can be distributed on your farm. Here are a few examples:

  1. Gravity-fed lines from an elevated source can distribute water to a series of water troughs.
  2. Animal-powered nose pumps can be used to draw water over short distances and minimal elevation from ponds, streams, or shallow wells.
  3. Solar energy can power low-flow pumps that accumulate water in troughs or reservoirs when electric service or other pumps are cost-prohibitive.
  4. Ram-type pumps use flowing water from moving streams/rivers to power pumps that draw water from the stream or river to the watering system.

Resources for More Information
"Watering Options for Grazing Systems" – This article by Dr. John W. Worley (Extension Engineer, Dept. of Biological and Agricultural Engineering) describes specific waterer options, powering mechanisms, and sizing details for the construction of pressurized systems.

"Watering Systems for Serious Grazing" - This publication was put together by the USDA-NRCS in Missouri. It is one of the most comprehensive publications on watering systems for MiG. It is full of excellent color photographs and illustrations.

Alternative Water Source: Developing Springs for Livestock - A publication from the Cooperative Extension Service of the University of Kentucky. It outlines a water option for producers to provide water by developing an existing spring.

Providing Water for Beef Cattle in Rotational Grazing Systems with Tire Wateres - This addresses clean water within every paddock of a rotational grazing system to realize maximum efficiency and production.

Water System Calculators: For Gravity-Fed or Municipal Water Sources – These online calculators were developed by Extension Engineers at the University of Kentucky. The calculations for pipe diameter and water pressure on up to four watering points are provided from data inputted by the user.

Go to the Links page for links to commercial sites.