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Getting water where it's needed

Agriculture.com Staff 08/01/2008 @ 8:44am

Providing cattle with an abundance of fresh water is the key to success for Gabe Brown's grazing system. With 41 grazing paddocks located long distances from wells, Brown relies on underground pipelines to transform an otherwise logistical nightmare into a practical system.

Brown, who ranches near Bismarck, North Dakota, laid the first shallow water line seven years ago. The one-inch-diameter polyethylene pipeline carries water 4,000 feet from an existing well to a tame-grass pasture. The pipe is buried in the ground about 12 inches. Freezing prevents use in winter, but the lines are economical to install and easy to repair.

Brown has put in an additional 3 miles of shallow water lines since the first installation. The lines let him channel water to 1,000 acres of grassland from just two wells.

The plentiful supply of fresh water lets Brown's grazing system work to its fullest advantage. With cross-fencing, he practices a high stocking density with short grazing periods and long recovery times.

For instance, in the summer of 2005 he grazed 250 yearlings in a 200-acre field cross-fenced into 13 paddocks. The paddocks ranged in size from 10 to 20 acres. The yearlings were rotated through the paddocks every two to five days, depending on paddock size. Paddocks are grazed once or twice during the grazing season, depending upon growing conditions.

Brown's grazing system was put to the test in the drought of 2006. By late summer his pastures had received only 1.8 inches of rainfall for the growing season. Yet his cattle still had plenty of forage.

"In a good, planned grazing system, the plant roots are so healthy that one year of drought won't make much difference to them," he says.

In recent installations, Brown used 1 1/4-inch pipeline so that slightly more water could be carried. The terrain of his land is relatively level, so a pump of 1/2 to 3/4 horsepower is large enough to push water a few miles from wells that are from 250 to 300 feet deep.

Most of Brown's pipelines have been 50% cost-shared by the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) offered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The program provides financial assistance to install wells, pipelines, tanks, and cross-fences needed to support grazing systems that enhance plant and soil health.

When drought conditions in 2006 caused fields enrolled in the CRP to be opened for emergency grazing, Brown laid a pipeline on top of the ground. Using temporary electric fencing, he cross-fenced a rented, 225-acre CRP field into seven pastures. The surface pipeline carried water from an existing well 1 mile away to the new paddocks.

While NRCS does not cost-share pipelines on existing CRP fields, the benefits merited the out-of-pocket cost because the piped-in water was the key to making a cross-fencing system work.

"We put 110 cow-calf pairs into that system, and having the cross-fencing let us make better use of the pasture by improving the harvest efficiency," explains Brown. "Without it, a lot of the grass would have been trampled."

Rotating cattle through multiple paddocks takes some maneuvering, but Brown learned by practice. "I don't recommend that people jump in and start rotating cattle through a lot of paddocks," he says. "Take it one step at a time."

The effort is well worth it, he adds. In just a couple of years, cattle are healthier and perform better, plants are stronger and more diverse, and water infiltration improves.

Providing cattle with an abundance of fresh water is the key to success for Gabe Brown's grazing system. With 41 grazing paddocks located long distances from wells, Brown relies on underground pipelines to transform an otherwise logistical nightmare into a practical system.

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