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Dugout Development and Site Selection Tool for Livestock Watering

The importance of Water Quality and Water Collection Sources

There are several factors to consider when developing water systems for agricultural use, including capacity required and availability. Dugouts are designed to collect surface water runoff and act as storage reservoirs in times of insufficient precipitation or when losses occur due to evaporation or ice formation. Wells on the other hand, are designed to utilize existing groundwater. Water quality and quantity in dugouts can vary greatly year to year whereas a well is generally more consistent.

When deciding to develop a new water source, a few factors should be considered:

  • Water quantity requirements – estimate the amount of water required now and in the future, including storage capacities. Will a dugout or well best suit those needs?
  • Water availability – is there evidence of groundwater or strong potential for runoff collection? Have test holes been dug?
  • Proximity of the water source – how far will it have to be piped/pumped to water the livestock (distance and elevation)? Are there power sources nearby?
  • Protecting the water source – how close will it be to crop land, runoff areas, or other waterways? Will livestock be watered direct from the source or will beneficial management practices be implemented to protect water quality?
  • Water quality – is there evidence that groundwater in the area is of poor quality? Is there an opportunity to take a sample for quality analysis from a test hole before the source is established?
  • Construction – consider the costs, source development and water appliances.
  • Regulations – consult with Water Security Agency to determine if your water source development project requires any special approvals or permits which can be located at the Water Security Agency website in the Permits and Approvals tab.

This document will help guide individuals in the development a dugout water source. Although dugouts can often vary in water quantity and quality depending on annual precipitation, they are a practical component of many farm operations. With proper management, dugouts can support an operation's goals to provide adequate water to livestock in a variety of environmental conditions.

Dugout Types

There are four types of dugouts:

  1. A dugout filled by runoff from surrounding areas (most common);
  2. A dugout that is constructed inside a watercourse (not recommended). You must obtain an Aquatic Habitat Protection Permit before doing work in, or near, water. The Water Security Agency issues these permits. The dugout may be rejected if it impacts those downstream. This type of dugout is an excavation that allows water to collect, then overflow and continue downstream. Additionally, this type of dugout allows nutrients and organic matter to build up, which can have adverse effects on water quality. When a dugout is constructed in stream, there is no way to control inflow, and as a result, water quality;
  3. A dugout that is near a watercourse (i.e. creek, ditch, or stream) that has an inflow mechanism to allow water to enter; and
  4. A dugout that collects ground and surface water (not recommended). This type of dugout is not recommended because surface water is susceptible to microbial contamination, while groundwater contains high levels of minerals. When ground and surface water are allowed to mix, it makes it more difficult (and costlier) to treat the water source than if it was one or the other.

Dugout Placement: Maximizing your water and lowering your risk

The creation of a dugout is a significant investment; it should be placed strategically to maximize usefulness. Dugouts should be placed in areas that maximize runoff potential, or areas that are in close proximity to allow for inlet from a water course. Dugouts should not be placed in marshy areas, or areas where saline tolerant vegetation (i.e. foxtail barley) already grows, as this can be a sign of high levels of Total Dissolved Solids. Total Dissolved Solids refers to inorganic and organic substances suspended water, including calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, bicarbonate, chlorides, and sulphates. In small quantities, these substances do not typically cause concern, however, at elevated levels, they can interfere with ruminant metabolism and have adverse health and production effects. To evaluate the salinity of the soil near your dugout, you may consider utilizing a series of soil tests.

Dugouts should be sized according to the amount of water required (i.e. number of animals watering for a given period of time) as well as capacity for at least two years, as precipitation can vary between years. Local livestock and feed extension specialists can also provide assistance. Contact your local office or call the Agriculture Knowledge Centre at 1-866-457-2377.

Location of the dugout for water collection is of primary importance, but there are other factors to take into consideration when selecting the site. These factors can include:

  1. Proximity to water use. For instance, livestock who are required to walk long distances to water tend not to drink as frequently, and are at risk of reducing their production potential as a result. In rangeland environments, the typical recommendations are that animals travel no farther than 3.2 kilometres (two miles) to water on flat topography and no more than 1.6 kilometres (one mile) in rough country (Smith, et al, 1986). The further the distance they have to travel, the longer they will remain at the water source. Ideally, the total herd should be able to drink in less than one hour, even at the highest demand (WCFA Pasture Planner 2017). In addition, if water needs to be piped/pumped/hauled from a dugout to livestock, sufficient stored water (at least one day's worth) should be readily available. The distance and elevation for pumping water should also be considered. There are a number of sizes and types of pumps available (shallow, submersible etc.). Some pumps have the ability to elevate water much further than others, which is important to consider. Distance and elevation to pump water will impact how often the pump needs to run, and the power required to do so.
  2. Proximity to power for off-site systems, pumps and/or aeration. Utilizing off-site water systems, regardless of if you are fencing off the source or not, is a beneficial management practice that can help maintain quality water and the sustainability of the source. The most reliable option for these systems is power, however if that is not an option, gas, wind-powered or solar-powered pumps may be utilized.
  3. Proximity to trees. Trees near a dugout can aid in snow collection thereby increasing the amount of runoff collected. However, trees that are exceedingly close to dugouts can reduce wind pressure that aids in mixing the water and increase the nutrient load when leaves are deposited into the dugout itself. These factors increase the risk of algae development in the dugout. To minimize this risk, it is recommended that deciduous trees be planted 50 metres away, while coniferous trees and shrubs should be planted 20 meters away. Snow fences may also be used near a dugout to increase snow collection and subsequent runoff.
  4. Proximity to potential sources of contamination. Placing dugouts where runoff moves through manure storage areas, heavily fertilized cropland or areas with pesticide application are not recommended. These areas could result in the dugout accumulating excessive nutrients which can lead to an increase in algae growth and/or harmful substances entering the water.

Integrating Beneficial Management Practices (BMPs)

A BMP is defined as an agricultural management practice that ensures long term health and sustainability of land while minimizing negative environmental impact and providing a positive impact on economics and environmental viability. In addition to the management considerations listed above, there are two other BMPs to consider: BMPs are designed to maximize producer efficiency, while protecting our environment by utilizing nutrients and water in an effective, sustainable way:

  1. Grassed buffer zones surrounding the dugout. These areas can help reduce water and wind erosion and act as a natural filter to limit sediments and other undesired runoff material. These areas can also be defined as riparian areas. To avoid overgrazing so that soil erosion (and sediment runoff) are limited, these areas can be fenced and managed differently than the rest of the pasture.
  2. Water testing: Dugouts are a practical means for water storage on farms. Through proper site selection and management, dugouts can be an effective part of any farm water system for a number of years. However, water quality in dugouts will change over time, therefore it is important to frequently test all water sources. Contact the Agriculture Knowledge Centre for more information (1-866-457-2377).

Funding Available

Through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, the Farm and Ranch Water Infrastructure Program can offer producers financial assistance in developing a sustainable water source. Additionally, the Farm Stewardship Program provides funding for producers to implement BMPs in three key areas (water, climate change and biodiversity). This program can offer producers financial assistance in managing riparian areas. This includes funding for fencing and water infrastructure improvements. Visit our CAP program section for more information.

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