Recently we posted a short video (YouTube link) to the DS Family Farm Facebook page showing how we provide fresh water to the cow herd in subzero weather. Late December 2017 through early January 2018 we had a 17 day stretch with temperatures below freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit) and many stretches below 0 degrees F (-18 degrees Celsius).  The system worked fine and we finally sold the propane tank heater we were keeping around for backup.

The secret is to keep the water surface protected from the WIND!  Since the video generated some questions on how the system exactly works, below is our “How To install a Subzero Frost Free Tank”:

Step 1:  Start with a heavy-duty tire from your local shop.  A few years ago we were able to get a used tire for two-dozen donuts!  The tire shop workers were glad to see us coming.

used tire for tank

Use sawzall (reciprocating) saw to cut holes in one tire sidewall (for cattle to stick their head into). Not an easy task, best accomplished with help of teenage boys!  Do not cut the entire side wall off!

Step 2:  Place and level tank in pasture.  We place the tire tanks on a ridge, in a fence line dividing two pastures.  We also drill a hole near the bottom of the tire and insert a pipe with a valve.  From the valve we run poly pipe over the ground and gravity flow water to portable tanks throughout the pasture (not during winter).

place tire tank

Level spot for tire tank. Once in coming water pipeline is trenched to tank, place geotextile fabric around tank and add crushed rock on the fabric providing a solid area for cattle traffic.

Step 3:  Bring water source (trench in pipeline) up through the bottom of the tank and also add overflow outlet tube/pipe if you like.  Next add concrete to plug the bottom of the tire hole to create a “tire tank” that holds water.

plugging tire to hold water

After pipes are brought up through bottom tire hole, pour concrete to seal the bottom of the tank!

Step 4:  The tank pictured below serves as our freeze proof tank (see diagram at end of this blog post).  The pump only runs when we have sunshine!  The photo below was taken during a long cloudy stretch of weather a few years ago.  A series of 12 volt batteries connected to the controller will run the pump without solar power.  Just once or twice a year we may run out of stored water before the sun shine’s again.  (Solar panel in background of photo below).

tank filling

Water running out fill pipe. Overflow tube is white tube near fill pipe. Float switch wires visible.

Step 5:  During winter, add a cover with flaps and cattle simply raise the flap to reach water.  In southeast Nebraska we are blessed with consistent sunshine during winter.  Even on cloudy winter days the solar panel will usually generate enough power to pump water and keep the tank recharged with fresh warm water.  If the air temperature reaches near or above 32 degrees F, this system works without any problems.  If temperatures are well below freezing, a layer of ice may form overnight on the water surface.  Cattle usually break the ice on their own and drink but the float switch may be frozen in the ice layer above the water surface.  We have to break the small layer of ice and allow the float switch to fall to the “ON” position for the pump to run.

cows lift flap

Tire tank cover. Cattle lift flap to drink. Fresh water keeps tank warm and prevents freezing.

Overview of entire system:

freeze free tank

The bleeder valve allows water to drain back down the fill pipe. Without the bleeder valve, water above the frost line could freeze solid after the pump stops.  A frozen fill pipe would cause all kinds of problems!

One last note on our system:

We actually run two tanks from this single well/pump setup.  A valve near the well (below the frost line) allows us to direct water to either tank pipeline.  With a float switch in each tank, we inserted a three-way switch to the controller.

  1. With the controller switch in the top position, the float switch at the top tank controls the pump.
  2. With the controller switch in the bottom position, the float switch at the bottom tank controls the pump.
  3. With the controller switch in the middle position, neither float switch controls the pump!  Pump is always “ON”.

What is the advantage of being able to switch the pump to always “ON”?

  • Answers:
    • In very cold weather, with the switch always “ON”, when the sun shine’s, the pump is running water.
    • Any extra water just runs into a pond at the “overflow tube” outlet (to daylight on diagram).
    • If a layer of ice forms overnight, the new fresh “warm” water will thaw the ice layer.
    • This gives us one more option to make sure the cattle always have access to fresh water.

In summary, protect the water surface from the wind and recharge fresh (warm) water daily.  Do your research, information from Canada is very helpful.  We also like these ideas:

  • Add a thermal “heat tube” under the tank
    • Based on our experience, not necessary if you have adequate recharge in our environment.
  • Frost free “nose pump”
    • Yes, cattle pump water when then need it with their nose!

We urge you to take four minutes to watch “NRCS: Pasture Management“.  It really does a nice job describing some activities we practice here at DS Family Farm.  These practices work for both pasture health and animal health and ultimately your health!

  1. The depiction of Rotational Grazing at 1:20 into the video is excellent.
  2. There is a discussion of excess manure at 3:00 which is not an issue in our pasture grazed only system.
  3. We are not “organically certified” but follow organic practices in much of our operation.

Overall, a nice video by the folks at USDA.

We all enjoy the beauty of trees in fall colors.  What does this season change mean for the land and animals?  What is nature doing?  How would large herbivores such as buffalo respond to the annual leaf drop?  These are the questions to think about when working with nature.

Elderberry leaves seem to be one of our cattle favorites to BROWSE.

Elderberry leaves (bright greenish yellow) seem to be one of our cattle favorites to BROWSE.

Grazer or Browser?

Cattle are primarily grazers, preferring grass over broad leaves.  Sheep will generally eat about half grass and half leaves.  Goats are primarily browsers, meaning they prefer leaves (broadleaf weeds and trees) over grass.  All three are ruminants, they have a special stomach called a rumen.  The rumen is full of bacteria that digests the incoming vegetation.  As vegetation is broken down by bacteria, nutrition is released and made available to the animal.

The broad wide mouth of a cow is obviously designed to grab swaths of forage, such as grasses swaying in the prairie and probably one main reason cattle prefer to graze.  Since the main incoming vegetation is grass, the bacteria that best thrive on grass will be dominant in a cow rumen.  It is best to feed the dominant bacteria population in their rumen what they want, and not sending down something the bacteria is not used to, resulting in an upset tummy.

Grazing the annual leaf drop in a section of forest/stream that was last grazed the summer of 2016.

Grazing the annual leaf drop in a section of forest/stream that was last grazed the summer of 2016.

Grazing Leaves?

If a leaf drops on the ground before it is eaten, is that considered Grazing or Browsing?

Cattle aren’t much for climbing trees!  Goats are known to climb somewhat (warning don’t park your car where a goat can climb it).  The cattle herd will browse the lower branches of trees creating a “browse line”.  This time of year the leaves come to the cows!

So why eat leaves if you are a grazer?

  • Tannins
    • These somewhat toxic compounds, mainly found in tree leaves, can actually help animals balance digestive problems.
  • Nutrients
    • Leaves contain different nutrients than grasses.
  • Other
    • Reasons the cattle only know.

You will find warnings to not let cattle have access to this tree leaf or that weed leaf.  These warnings imply cattle are dumb?  Luckily we have smart cattle.  As long as the herd has adequate foraging opportunities, we do not worry about poisonous plants.

  • Our Momma cows teach their calves.
  • If someone gets an upset stomach from something, lesson learned!

We do avoid poison hemlock patches during the winter when hemlock leaves are green and everything else is pretty much brown.

Annual leaf drop in forested stream area. The herd is excluded from this section of stream that was grazed earlier this summer.

Annual leaf drop in forested stream area. The herd is fenced out from this section of stream grazed earlier this summer.

Annual Leaf Drop

With just a little planning we can MOVE the herd for the opportunity to take advantage of the leaf drop.  We let them choose how many and what leaves to graze.  Other things to consider during this graze:

  • Stream channel stability
  • Water quality
  • Wildlife needs

When leaves fall in the stream and dissolve, carbon dioxide is released.  Carbon dioxide plus water creates carbonic acid.  This weak acid breaks down rocks/minerals.  The changed mineral content of the water cycles new minerals through plants and animals.  The break down of rocks is also part of soil formation.

It is easy to see and understand the process described in the photo of the stream and leaves shown above.  But this is the exact same process the cattle herd encourages in our prairie!  When cattle stomp and manure a pasture, the dead grasses release carbon dioxide and moisture in the soil or from rain creates carbonic acid in the prairie soil creating more soil!  What a wonderful design.  Remember the bacteria described in the rumen of the cow?  The exact same process is also going on under our feet in the soil!  SOIL is one huge RUMEN full of all kinds of microbes.  Do you think it is an accident that these processes have a similar design repeated throughout nature?

Grazing and managing cattle in natures image results in:

  • SOIL CATTLE!

    • Nourished by the soil

    • Creating new healthy soil

    • Feeding healthy people

  • Not OIL Cattle!

    • Dependent on fossil fuels (OIL) for:

      • Fertilizer and pesticides

      • Machine planting, harvesting and hauling

Please contact us if you would like to visit the herd of SOIL CATTLE always on the Mooooove.

Unfortunately, our beef is not normal.

Looking at a “normal distribution” of HOW all beef is raised in our country, we are definitely weird!

Normal is for the masses, we like being weird!  No status quo around here.  Actually, if you look at the pattern of nature and IF you consider nature normal, then yes we are normal.  That is why we say, “unfortunately, our beef is not normal”.  We hope in the future that pasture raised beef will be the norm, until then, we choose to be weird.

Fortunately our weird is some folks normal.  We are currently seeing great demand for our beef and are happy to spread the word and connect interested customers with other weird beef producers.

Weird vs Normal beef:

Weird vs Normal Beef

The problem with normal food.

Seth Godin points out that “Normal diets made it easier for mass food manufacturers to generate a profit.”  We have seen the results of the Standard American Diet (standard = normal).  Our society has reached a point where some of the masses are realizing that their diet is directly linked to their overall health and they are seeking out healthy/weird food.

“We are all on a diet, be on a healthy one!” – Dr. Joseph Mercola

Being weird is not easy, as Godin also points out, “Do the hard work – be real.”  For real health, you are going to have to do some work!  Raising REAL BEEF, in natures image requires some hard work and commitment.  Give us a call and come see some Weird Beef.  As Dave always says:

“Be Weird!” – Dave Ramsey

(If you have comments, please leave a message on the DS Family Farm FaceBook Page.)

Viewer discretion advised, cow pies ahead!

Healthy looking cow pie in a recently grazed paddock.

Healthy looking cow pie!  Early April on a grazed paddock (stockpile forage and hay).

We all know cows communicate by mooing.  Cows also communicate through their “back-end”.  Note the caption under the cow pie photo above.  A “healthy looking” cow pie means the cows are healthy!  We, I mean Doug, spends a lot of time looking down (at cow pies).  A cow pie will tell you how the cows are doing nutritionally.

Want to learn more about how to “read” a cow pie?

Here are two posts from The Samuel Roberts Nobel Foundation (Oklahoma):

Let’s talk quantity

A cow will poop and pee around 4 times every 24 hours.  The cow consumes about 3% of her body weight in grass every day.  Remember a cow cannot digest grass.  That’s around 30 pounds (every day) a cow grazes to feed the microbes living in her special stomach (called the rumen).  The trillions of microbes inside of her convert grass into nutrients she can use.  It is her job to manage the microbes in her rumen by selecting the best possible diet.  It is our job to give her the right size paddock to be able to select the right balance of forages for those little critters inside of her.  In the end or should I say OUT the END we gain lots of manure (about 80% what goes in comes out!).  Manure is fine when grazing on pasture, not so good for feedlots you drive by with cattle standing around in mud or on dirt.

Nice manure distribution and trampling of stockpiled forage.

Nice manure distribution.  About 25 lbs of Nitrogen per acre.

After taking the photo above I marked out a 2000 square foot area and counted about 70 PIES.  That comes to about one pie every 30 square feet.  A quick estimate = 1,110 pounds of manure per acre!

Let’s talk quality (nutrient value)

Did you know you can have manure tested?  If you are interested in the process, visit the folks at Texas A&M University.  The Grazing Animal Nutrition Lab has the corner on the manure testing market with their Nutritional Balance Analyzer (NUTBAL) system (NUTBAL Facebook page).  Basically you take a scoop or two from a number of pies, put it in a plastic bag, freeze it and send it to the GANLAB.  At the lab, they slip some manure under a near infrared analysis machine and compare it to a database of known results.  Using the information they estimate the herds future condition based on a current cow pie test.  Based on the results, the herds diet can be adjusted to meet a limiting need such as energy or protein.  Let’s just say, sometimes the results don’t quite match what we see in our visual cow pie testing.  We are a little bit out of the norm for the database being used.

Collecting a sample for analysis.

Collecting a sample for analysis.

Total Output

Using the actual manure test results we find reported Nitrogen and Phosphorus values.  Running averages on our herd size and also checking against UN-L book values for feedlot manure, following are some estimates for our herd:

  • Cow herd was leaving behind ~1100 lbs. of manure per acre
    • (Refer to the distribution photo above)
  • Nutrient Value of Manure:
    • 15-20 lbs. of Nitrogen per acre
    • 2 to 4 lbs. of Phosphorus per acre
      • Note our Phosphorus value is low compared to UN-L book values
  • Urine Nitrogen (N consumed – N found in Manure – N in new animal growth)
    • 10-15 lbs of Nitrogen per acre
    • It takes 0.04 lbs of Nitrogen for 1 lbs of animal growth

Our overall estimate for Nitrogen per acre = 25 lbs based on our herd management and manure distribution.  Reading UN-L information, up to 25% of feed lot manure will be lost to the atmosphere depending on temperature and moisture.  For our pasture situation, we think our loss would be lower.

Summary

This post was mainly for Doug’s reference.  Thank you to the folks at the GANLAB for their guidance in running some of my calculations.  Feel free to scrutinize the estimates here and we will adjust this post as more information becomes available.  Our estimates are based on a specific herd size at a specific time and place using field and lab information.  To make some rough calculations for any herd size I would start with the following values:

For each 1000 lbs of animals in the herd:

  • 0.25 lbs of Nitrogen per day output
  • Subtract 0.04 lbs of Nitrogen for every pound of new animal growth per day
    • Consider a feed test to check total Nitrogen going into the herd/animal
    • Crude protein lbs intake / 6.25 = Nitrogen intake
  • Consider a percent loss to atmosphere
  • What is the distribution?
    • If manure is piling up in a lot, under a tree or next to a water source, we are not recycling nutrients properly.
    • We should always be looking at ways to improve animal impact.