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The facts about off-channel watering and how it can help improve livestock operations

Farmers and Ranchers, did you know that you can protect your land, demonstrate stewardship, and get financial and technical help to do so? That’s right, you can stop erosion, improve your water quality, and improve the health of your livestock all at the same time. 


How you might ask? Well, as many may have noticed, there have been more and more efforts to encourage livestock to move away from streams using off-channeling watering methods. This effort stems from the desire by many folks in the community to improve local stream conditions. Perhaps you have noticed that as decades have gone by where livestock have had unlimited access to riversides and waterways, land and water supplies have become worn down and degraded. In fact, repetitive access to riparian areas by livestock has shown to reduce vegetation on streamsides and/or damage banks, leading to an increased susceptibility to erosion, river widening, and eventually loss of pasture during flooding events.

Ranchers have also noticed that as cattle
and other livestock enter streams they leave behind wastes that contain harmful 

bacteria that can cause illness in animals and humans. In addition to the effects on the livestock and land, allowing unrestricted access to creeks by livestock can cause a domino effect of negative consequences for water quality, fish, and wildlife. For example, the removal of vegetation in riparian areas can eliminate shade, resulting in higher water temperatures. Higher water temperatures can lead to reduced dissolved oxygen concentrations which can then lead to the “death” of a water body, meaning, that fish and plants can no longer live in that water body. Lower dissolved oxygen combined with more organic matter, like animal wastes, can result in what is referred to as eutrophic conditions, promoting the growth of parasites, bacteria, and invasive species. So, while allowing livestock to enter streams may have been convenient in the past, now farmers and ranchers are battling with even more complications!


Regardless of these many realizations however, ranchers must face the facts: cows need water, and the easiest, most straightforward way to obtain it is by allowing them to access the nearest creek. Although some landowners acknowledge this truth, they still feel that the negative impacts created by livestock on creeks outweigh the convenience, and have opted for off-channel watering methods. In some cases, these landowners have already lost feet of pasture because of erosion and flooding, and in others, landowners have grown tired of treating livestock with expensive medicines because of parasites and broken legs due to muddy banks.

Livestock access off-channel watering troughs Photo credit: NRCS February 2012

Many of these landowners have been pleased with the success of their off-channel projects and now feel comfortable removing all their cattle from the creeks year-round. So now you might be asking yourself, what exactly is off-channel watering? How can you find out more about it? Where can you go for help?

What is Off-Channel Watering?

Simply put, off-channel watering is offering alternative sources of water for livestock from the main channel of creeks and irrigation ditches using pumps, wells, troughs or tanks, spring developments, ponds, rainwater catchment systems or pipes. With an increase in agricultural technology and conservation science, there are now many options to the type and range of alternative watering projects.

Direct Benefits of Off-Channel Watering

Although the benefits of off-channel watering transcend economic and environmental rea- sons, there are several straight-forward, direct benefits which include:

  • Provides more flexibility in managing grazing systems, manure distribution and pasture utilization

  • Provides a year-round supply of disease- free, freeze- proof water for livestock that is warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer

  • When used in conjunction with protected heavy-use areas, they provide a solid, mud-free watering area

  • Decreases soil erosion and helps maintain stable stream banks as well as reduces damage to irrigation ditches, preventing leakage and improving efficiency

  • Improves water quality in streams while reducing incidents of injury and illness in livestock (NRCS 2016)



When choosing a livestock watering system that works for you there are many factors to consider, for example, site layout, water requirements, availability and cost of utility water and electricity, seasonal water use, size of the herd, and the location of the water source. Many livestock owners have found that some systems work better than others based on their individual needs and cattle requirements. Types of alternative watering systems can include: AC electrical pumping systems, gravity flow systems, improved cattle crossings, ram pumps, and solar DC pumping systems. Nosepumps are a great alternative to paying pumping costs and increase water efficiency. Cattle can access water at their own demand and are easily trained to use the pump.


Who Can Help Me?

Finding assistance at no cost to the landowners is easy too! The Baker County Soil and Water (comprised of Bakery Valley, Keating, Eagle Valley, and Burnt River SWCDS) have been involved in working with private landowners to improve natural resources while benefiting livestock and wildlife since the 1940’s. Since that time, SWCD has been successfully implementing off-channel watering projects all over Baker County. Whitney Collins, District Manager of the SWCD, explains that “Our goal is to make it as clear and easy as possible for those interested to get started. The first step I tell landowners that are interested is to contact the SWCD office to set up an appointment to have a Technician visit the property.” Additionally, the Powder Basin Watershed Council is working with Idaho Power to provide design services with an 

IPC Engineer to landowners in the Pine Valley area, where the landowner can discuss their individual needs and desires on a case by case basis. This service can be scheduled after initial consultation with the Powder Basin Watershed Council.

How Can I Afford It?

After a technician or engineer visits a property and a plan is developed that the landowner finds suitable, the next step would be to find funding options available. Collins explains that “There are numerous funding sources accessible through the four local SWCD's, various government agencies, and non profit organizations; therefore the extent of the available funds depends on the individual projects and circumstances.” Some of the funding available to agricultural producers can be obtained through the 2014 Farm Bill Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) through the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), Idaho Power Company, or Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB).

In the RCPP, NRCS “co-invests with partners in innovative, workable, and cost-effective approaches to benefit farming, ranching, and forest operations; local economies; and the communities and resources in a watershed

or other geographic area.” The application process has two parts, a “pre-proposal” and “full proposal” application. Although some programs are more geared to handle off-channel watering projects, the NRCS implements RCPP conservation program contracts and easement agreements through four existing NRCS programs:

Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)

“EQIP is a voluntary program that provides financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers to plan and implement conservation practices that improve soil, water, plant, animal, air, and related natural resources on agricultural land and non-industrial private forestland. Those who submit an application and are accepted into EQIP may receive technical assistance to plan conservation measures. Through EQIP, NRCS provides or covers the cost of professional technical services to develop conservation measures. This includes: on-site assessments, site-specific practice and management plans, and engineering designs.” Payments are made

to participants after the implementation of the conservation practices, and can be used to cover the cost of: irrigation water management, forest stand improvements, fencing, livestock watering, waste management systems, vegetative buffers, and more. 

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