The One-cow Revolution

a grass-fed homestead


stock water and irrigation

At the Sow’s Ear our principal of avoidance of off-farm inputs, as well as our concern for environmental stability, extends to our use of water for irrigating plantings and watering the animals.  The main house, being near the top of our hillside property, is still on well water pumped by an electric pump, but everywhere else on the farm electric power for moving water has been nearly or completely eliminated.

We have three principal water systems on the farm.

roof runoff

Large tanks sequester rainwater from roof gutters.

An IBC (intermediate beverage container, those 275 gallon square plastic containers with aluminum framing otherwise known on the Sow’s Ear as “water hogs”) set on a shelf in the side of the hill above our big home garden catches the runoff from our calf barn.  The elevation is only slight but is sufficient to deliver water to our fruit trees, the strawberry patch, and the section of garden along the lane.  It is also high enough to deliver water to the stem-valve waterer (“pig nipple”) in the pig pen in the barn.

The large hole in the top of the tank receives rainwater from the gutter on the barn, and the two-inch spigot in the front of the tank takes a PVC adaptor which accepts a standard garden hose to carry water to the gardens.  A threaded coupling plumbed into the upper edge of the tank accommodates a short section of hose to carry excess water away from the dirt shelf on which the tank rests.  This prevents erosion under the tank; any undermining of its stability has to be avoided not only for the integrity of the system, but even more importantly for the safety of the human beings working around it.

Also using roof water, water for the raised beds near the house is collected in a 600 gallon plastic tank salvaged from a warehouse.  Because this sits on a metal stand we were concerned with aspects of safety – 600 gallons of water weighs more than three tons! – so this tank is elevated on a heavy framework of railroad ties.  In addition to greater stability, this gives it the elevation necessary to deliver water to the raised beds, which are almost on a level with the tank.  The water derives from the gutter system on the garage roof; overflow is piped away from the base of the tank by a PVC downspout plumbed into its upper edge.  This tank, like the water hogs, has a threaded opening near the bottom which is adapted to take a standard garden hose.

Both of these systems may be expanded by directing overflow into additional storage tanks, successive tanks being each at slightly less elevation.

creek water

   With surface water, quality is always a concern.  Runoff may be contaminated with residues from agricultural activities, or, where there are many people, with any number of chemical and biological pollutants.  We are fortunate at the Sow’s Ear to be placed near the top of our watershed; North Creek derives from shale springs in the walls of the short, steep hollow above our farm, so that we can be confident of the water’s purity.  Only when heavy rains drain our county road into the creek is the water in any way compromised, and this only temporarily.  If our watershed was longer or its sources more obscure we might test the water before using it for livestock.

   One very simple watering system is created by dropping a half-barrel into North Creek just below the culvert.  The barrel is weighted with rock, and a hose plumbed just below its upper rim carries water  to points desired.    This system provides constant water flow; the hose is simply run overground to any point of lower elevation where water is needed.   In cases where the hose has to pass over a high spot to reach the point of delivery, the hose must be full initially so that the water will siphon over the high point, the weight of the water on the side of the hose away from the half-barrel pulling the water over the elevation.

This system has the enormous advantage that it is inexhaustible.  Water is delivered constantly to any point lower than the intake, which allows us to irrigate all but the highest points of the big garden just as much as is desired, without any thought of water bills or empty rain barrels.  During the summer of 2012 when the biggest garden at the monastery suffered from the dry conditions, the home garden flourished and harvests were exceptional.  We spot watered, irrigated whole rows, and used drip hoses to get the water where it was needed; at night we could simply drop the hose at the high end of a row and let gravity do the rest.  The benefits extended beyond the garden; when the south pasture spring was running too slowly to provide all the water the pigs and dairy cows needed, we filled the spring tank from the creek in just a couple of hours.  And if the creek hose isn’t needed anywhere else, we drop it into the stock tank in the barnyard, where it keeps fresh water always available.  The overflow forms a waterfall into the duck pond.

The disadvantage to this system is the particulates in the water which clog drip hoses; we are experimenting with hole sizes to create a drip hose which will not clog quickly.

springs and seeps

Developed springs or seeps provide water in almost all our pastures and account for most of the water we use for livestock.

A spring of clean water is a blessing of almost inestimable value on a farm; if it rises in a spot higher than the barns and pastures it is beyond price.  If it does not, but comes up instead in a low place, it is still very useful; it will just need some help getting to where you need it, or else you will have to let the animals come where it is.  At the Sow’s Ear we have all three situations at once.

south pasture   

Although the south pasture is small enough that a single tank by the barn would be adequate for a conventional grazing system in which the animals have the run of the whole pasture at all times, it is contrary to the principles of managed grazing that the livestock should have a single, stationary water source.  The reasons for this are several.  Animals with a fixed watering place will tear up and muddy the ground around it, leading to erosion, as well as possible foot problems and parasite build-up.  Animals tend to lounge near their water source, resulting in concentrations of manure and urine in these areas, manure and urine the grazier wishes to be spread evenly over his pastures.  Paths are worn from outlying points back to the watering place, again resulting in erosion.  And animals which have to walk back to water spend time and energy which might better be spent eating and lounging.  For the grazier, multiple tanks or fountains, or moveable tanks, are a better fit.  Hence our present watering systems.

The barn spring, which provides water for the whole south pasture, is actually an improved seep.  A spot on the hillside above our dairy barn was wet even in the middle of a hot dry summer, with coarse, saw-like sedges instead of palatable grasses growing on it.  This indicated that rain water percolating down from high on the hill was at this point reaching some impervious stratum  — it could have been shale, but was really clay in this case – and seeping out into the soil.  After some consultation with our ever-helpful farmer friend Clint, we dug a trench across the hill several feet above the wet spot, going down three feet, and laid a French drain.  The perforated pipe of the French drain system was broken in the middle by a solid tee fitting.  This connects to a length of solid pipe and leads downhill via another three-foot trench to a settling tank, and from there to two holding tanks at the back of the barn.  The smaller tank provides water for the pig pens while the other is merely storage for water which is pumped twice a week by means of an electric jet pump to a third tank at the top of the south pasture.  From here it gravity feeds anywhere in the pasture through hundreds of feet of garden hose to a thirty-gallon tank furnished with a low-pressure valve (a Jobe float or a Hudson valve) which regulates the flow.  This tank is small enough to be easily moved from paddock to paddock as we rotate the cows around the pasture.

This system provides water to the barn throughout all but the coldest days of the year; because the water remains underground most of the way, and because it is constantly flowing, so far it has not frozen.   The tank at the top of the pasture, on the other hand, must be drained as soon as frost comes to prevent water freezing in the tank and hoses and damaging them.  In winter, the animals water at the creek-fed tank by the duck pond.

west hill clearing

The water in the west hill clearing is, like our south pasture water, piped overground through garden hose.  This water, however, comes from a true spring located several hundred yards away on the south side of the hill, and only a few feet higher than the clearing itself.  The spring water, a small but constant stream flowing out from under a large rock, is captured behind a clay dam, from which it runs through two-inch PVC to a thirty gallon tank plumbed with a hose fitting.  A screen over the fitting prevents leaves and dirt – and snakes and crawdads – from entering the hose and stopping the flow.  The hose is simply draped along our rough forest path until it reaches the clearing, where it is either directed into another thirty-gallon tank, if we are grazing cattle, or fixed to a pig nipple welded onto an iron step-in post.  For this system, then, no power but gravity is needed;  but like the hose-fed system in the south pasture, it is unusable in wintertime.

west pasture, monastery

This fall we extended the grazing season in the west pasture at the monastery by capturing the water from a spring and directing it into a black rubber tire tank at the edge of the woods.  Prior to this our use of the monastery pastures was restricted to spring, summer and fall, when it is possible pump water from the well at the house.  As soon as frost threatened we had to turn off the water to the outside spigots, drain the hoses, and take the steers back to the home pastures.  With the development of what we hope will be frost-free water, we should be able to keep the steers on the monastery pastures indefinitely.

This spring rises in a low spot almost at the bottom of the pasture.  A heavy plastic barrier plumbed with an inch and a quarter PVC fitting and strengthened with native clay captures the water flowing from several small springs.  The barrier is back-filled with river rock and covered with two layers of six mil plastic sheeting and several inches of earth to keep out surface water which might be contaminated.  PVC carries the spring water thirty feet through a trench two feet deep to a tank made from a large tractor tire.  The pipe rises through the cement bottom of the tank, filling the tank and running out through a PVC drawdown or overflow pipe.  As in the case of the south pasture spring the constant movement of water through the pipes should be sufficient to prevent freezing in all but the coldest of weather; the black rubber tire, absorbing solar energy during the day and insulating the water at night, is supposed to keep the water in the tank from freezing as well.  Some people build an insulated cover for such tanks, with openings to allow the livestock to drink, and if we have any trouble with freezing we will do the same.

A disadvantage to this system is its low elevation.  So far we have no way of storing the water at a higher point for piping around the pasture, nor of pumping it to that point, so we are forced in this case to let the animals come to a stationary water tank.  The disadvantages of doing so can be diminished if the grazier lays a six foot apron of crushed limestone four- to six-inches deep around the tank to prevent the animals churning the area to mud.  In our case the disadvantages of the stationary tank are far outweighed by being able to make the additional forage available to our livestock in wintertime.

6 thoughts on “water

  1. We are really interested in your higher IBC tote/ hose watering system for livestock, but are confused as to what we might use in the winter (SW Michigan). I know you try to graze your animals for most of the winter; how do you water them in these winter paddocks (or do all pastures have access to this “tire tank?” If you’ve addressed your winter setup elsewhere, id love a link. Thank you so much!

    1. Well, our book The Independent Farmstead does go into the question at some length, and there are posts on this blog, but I’d be hard pressed to tell you exactly where. Short answer: the IBC’s work for us into December, even though frost comes a lot earlier. That’s because the mass of water in the IBC is a heat sink and it takes both nights and days of freezing weather to freeze an IBC. If we’re expecting really cold weather overnight, we’ll shut off the water and unhook the float valve so it can drain, because the float valve is what is most likely to freeze. In the morning we just hook it back up.
      Some time in December, usually, it gets to cold to keep doing that. Then we do one of two things: we just fill the tank daily with a hose from the house or convent (and break ice when necessary), or we give the cows a lane back to the spring tank. What actually happens a good deal of the time is that there is snow on the ground and the cows get their water that way, picking up snow as they graze. Then they don’t require water at all. Lots of northern stockmen don’t water as long as there is snow on the ground, and it works that way for us.

      I hope this helps!

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