Cattle grazer Tim Hoven has a love-hate relationship with solar watering systems.
“When it works great, it’s amazing. But when there’s complications, it’s extremely frustrating — just like any piece of technology,” the Eckville-area producer said in an interview last month.
“Yesterday, I was literally out fighting a frozen water line that had drained the battery, and I had 180 animals that hadn’t had a drink yet.
“It posed a bit of a challenge for a cold Tuesday morning.”
Hoven has been using alternative watering systems for more than 20 years, and made the move to solar waterers in 1997 because of some remote locations in his pasture land.
“It gives us better control,” said Hoven, who now has three solar waterers.
“We can put the water where we want to, instead of only having one or two locations that they have to graze around. The solar waterers help us get our grazing management a step above what we could do without them.
“It gives you the freedom to better manage your grazing.”
Despite some of the challenges with solar waterers (particularly in the winter), the technology has moved “leaps and bounds forward” in recent years, says Marvin Jackson, owner of Sundog Solar. And that “changes how a producer can manage his land.”
“We’re constantly being pushed to do more with less, and solar water pumping helps to do that,” said Jackson.
“It will make you much more competitive in the marketplace, through decreased time for management, increased herd health, and increased rate of gain.
“That all boils down to increased efficiency and profitability.”
Right sizing equipment
But in order to get the job done right, the system needs to be designed both in size and with appropriate equipment to match your specific needs.
“The system does need to be sized properly, just the same as a grain farmer would size his tractor,” said Jackson. “We have to match what the actual producer needs on how many sites for how large a herd. But it’s often overlooked.”
Hoven’s advice? “Buy a system that’s bigger than what you need.
“Don’t just say, ‘I think this tiny system will do my herd,’” he said. “There’s nothing worse than when it’s 35 above and your pump can’t keep up with the demands of your cattle.”
Producers need to do their research and make sure “it’s going to work within their operations,” said Hoven. That means getting a big enough tank and reserve for the right level of storage capacity, and big enough panels to power the pump.
“You need to plan for how much capacity you’re going to need on the hottest day of the year,” he said. “You might only get that circumstance once every 10 years, but if you don’t have that capacity, it’s going to be a problem.
“As soon as the tank goes dry, the cows start getting aggressive.”
And ultimately, you get what you pay for, Hoven added.
“If you buy cheap equipment, you’re going to have more problems than if you had a bigger capital expense in the beginning,” he said.
“You can cheap out a bit, but you’re not going to be as efficient because it won’t work as well.”
Plan for worst case
Producers don’t need to make a huge upfront investment, said Jackson. But solar watering should be just one part of an overarching long-term water management plan.
“Quality water solar pumping is not really new,” said Jackson. “Most people just don’t put enough time into a plan as they should.”
Plans don’t need to be “in depth or engineered,” he said.
“If they mark on a blank piece of paper the land they have and the water they use now, and then mark how it would change if they had water in a different location, they can think about how to best meet in the middle on that criteria,” said Jackson.
Water management plans would have helped many more cattle producers weather the drought seen in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan this summer, Jackson added.
“This past summer, I talked to a lot of producers who were stressed to the max that they didn’t have water for their cattle,” he said.
“I strongly feel that if producers had a water management plan where they planned for the worst-case scenario, I would not have talked to as many stressed producers who were in panic mode long after they should have been.”
And by incorporating solar watering systems into that overall plan — rather than simply relying on them in a crisis — producers can respond quickly to watering challenges as they crop up.
“In the past, solar water systems have been looked at as a bit of a band-aid when there’s either way too much water and things are muddy or when there’s a drought and producers need a quick fix,” said Jackson.
“If people approach it as part of having a water plan, it makes your life much less stressful.”