Water and the Ranch

I was recently on a conference call with a group of other young farmers and ranchers in Washington, and while we were waiting for others to join, the topic of weather cropped up. In social scenarios, the weather is a common topic (especially amongst west siders if there has been more than like two consecutive hours of sunshine!). But it’s never just small talk in ag circles. The significance of rain, or lack of it cannot be undersold.

A farmer with hay cut in the field will race the rain to get it baled before a precipitous storm (hay must be dry to be baled, and hay that has been rained on is less marketable). I don’t see a storm in the forecast until like Thursday, which is a very wide window for hay makers to work with. But for a farmer with dry land wheat coming up in the Palouse, critically low moisture in May/June can delay or prevent a crop, or large spots from maturing for harvest.

Footage of a late Spring storm, complete with hard rain. We’ll take what we can get, when we can get it!

Any extra moisture mustered is a plus for the range land. At an average of 14 total inches a year, and an inch or less a month occurring during the growing season, bonus rain can mean bonus grass for the grazing. The impact of drought conditions a couple of years ago in the Midwest and Texas are still reverberating. Many ranchers in that part of the country were forced to sell all or part of their cattle herd. These conditions contributed to the cattle herd dropping to a 60 year low. While there are signs of the ranching community rebuilding, you can bet your Rib Eye the drought has had an impact on prices at the meat case. Reports of current drought in the Southwest make the problem ongoing.

Kansas rancher-mom Debbie Lyons-Blythe documented the 2012 drought on their ranch on her Life On A Kansas Cattle Ranch blog in a 4-part series:

“As long as there is dead, dry grass they can eat to fill up, they just need more protein. Once all the grass is gone, we will have to move them to another pasture or bring them home and start feeding hay–at least 2-3 months earlier than normal.”

Weathering (this blog brought to you by puns) just one season like that is difficult for a ranch to get through. Water, or lack of is a huge issue beyond the control of farmers and ranchers. Honestly, I’m surprised that the Serenity Prayer is used more in AA than at Farm Bureau meetings.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

It behooves farmers and ranchers to accept that they can’t control the weather. If not, AA might be the alternative. Acceptance, innovation and prayer are probably better options. Kind of like other daily things I can’t control:


The clingy-pants, teething ten-month old has something to type: aghedfbeareraber;45]

This seems to be an average year moisture-wise here. Cattle, crop water and people water on our ranch are derived from a couple different sources – a healthy flowing creek, and a few natural springs that feed small lakes, and wells developed by previous generations of ranchers on the Bar U.

Cows grazing the riparian area of the aptly named Cow Creek, which flows through the ranch from Sprague Lake to the Palouse River. And I didnt put a bird on it -- he just happened to get in the frame!

Cows grazing the riparian area of the aptly named Cow Creek, which flows through the ranch from Sprague Lake to the Palouse River.

A typical chore this time of year is putting out salt and mineral supplements and starting up a well pump to keep water troughs full for the cattle grazing in different areas of the ranch.

Rancher fires up the well pump that will keep the water troughs in this pasture full for a couple of weeks

Rancher fires up the well pump that will keep the water troughs in this pasture full for about a week.

This particular day, Rancher trained me on how to start this pump. The pump runs on an eight hour timer to fill the 12,000 gallon water tank. The tank feeds the troughs the cattle drink from, which fill each other through siphon tubes. This will last all of the cattle in this pasture a week or so before the pump needs to run again.

Water troughs are key pieces of ranch infrastructure.

Water troughs are key pieces of ranch infrastructure.

Water is a resource management topic central to the sustainability of farming and ranching. Cattlemen are curious, and continuously partner with University researchers to get to the bottom of how much water, land, and energy is used in the process of raising beef.

UC Davis research1 showed that it takes about 441 gallons of water to produce one pound of boneless beef. WSU research2 studying the comparative environmental impact of beef production shows our modern production model uses 12 percent less water than 30 years ago (1977 versus 2007). The studies factor in the water animals drink, water used to irrigate pasture land that the cattle graze, water used to grow crops that the cattle are fed and the water used in processing the beef. It is fun to compare sources of water use in the U.S.:

water use image

I tend to think food production is one of the more legit uses of our water resources.

On ranches like ours, the water resources we develop and manage benefit our cattle and the wildlife and birds that call this place home. Without accessible water, the range land would be certifiably useless for food production.

The story doesn’t end here, water management is a daily endeavor, and improvements and efficiencies will continue to be achieved through technology and modern farming and ranching practices. Water use on a ranch like ours is something you might keep in mind when a trumped up environmental study comes out by a group such as HSUS or PETA (which are patently against animal agriculture, even if cows were like desert camels). And last I checked, the water our cattle drink and that which irrigates the hay makes our ranch productive, without robbing a drop from the leaky faucets of NYC.

Happy Hour at the local trough!

Happy Hour at the local trough! The herd tends to move together and congregate at the water source a couple of times a day.

More Information about beef production and water:

1Fact Sheet

2Beef’s Shrinking Environmental Footprint

Facts About Beef Blog

6 thoughts on “Water and the Ranch

    • Hi Cheri! I checked out your blog, love it (especially the pics of Jake…I’ve only met him a couple of times, but he makes an impression :-)). I may want to link to your blog in posts on related ranch activities if that is okay. While I’m writing about some of the Bar U goings on, the blog is really an attempt to share a bigger picture of beef production here in WA (and elsewhere in the country).

      • Sure you can link to my blog whenever you want to. Jake does make an impression on people. I hear that a lot! 🙂 I think you are doing a great job on your blog. And the Beef its whats for dinner in Washington . I would like people to know how beef cows are treated ( with love), and how we go above and beyond to be the best stewards of the land. If you don’t take care of the land, you cant raise cattle.
        You can always email me at cameronharder@ymail.com.

  1. Pingback: Power Outages and 30 Minute Meals {Recipe and Giveaway} | ranch wife life

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