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Stock water system utilizing dugouts provide potential winter water benefits

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Many cattle producers use ponds or dugouts to collect water to service a water system.  

“Our region is very hilly, with quite a bit of slope, so we can also use dams to hold back and collect water in those draws and then put a water system below it to let some of that water into a trough,” said Gerald Vandervalk who raised cattle near Clareshom, Alberta, Canada.

Dams versus dugouts

“This is a little different than a dugout,” Vandervalk continued. “In my opinion, a dugout is in a relatively flat area where there might be a depression where water collects, and we just dig it deeper, for more storage.” 

Conversely, a dam involves locating an area where water would normally run through, then installing a structure to catch and store the water. The pond created by the dam or dugout, he explained, may be fenced off so cows can’t get into it. 

Often, the water collected behind a dam is seasonal runoff, such as in the spring or after any major rain holding enough water to store there for cattle use.  

“When we are making the dam, we put a pipe through the bottom of the dam because it’s easier to do then. We put a valve on that pipe, similar to a stop or drain valve, where the valve is below ground,” Vandervalk explained. “The valve is always below frost, so if we need water for the cows in January, we can go turn that valve on and have easy access to water coming through the pipe at the bottom of the dam.”

Summer or winter

These systems work well for summer or winter.  

“In the summer, we just put a float on the trough. The water flows in until the trough is full, and then, it shuts off automatically,” he said.

During the winter months, when the water requirements for cattle are less, Vandervalk allows the valve to run continuously, with less flow. 

“We put a pipe fitting down to half-inch, quarter-inch or whatever size we think we need and let it run all the time, which helps keep it from freezing. There is usually enough water in the dam to supply the cows for a while, especially if they are only there for a few weeks in that pasture,” he said. 

In this situation, the trough would have an overflow. The excess water runs through a buried overflow pipe that diverts water down the draw and away from the trough. The strategy avoids overflow water creating an ice-skating rink for cattle.

“We usually use at least a 30-foot overflow pipe so the water would come out farther down the coulee,” Vandervalk explained. “We don’t want the overflow pipe too long, however, or it might freeze and plug up.”  

“It helps if there is a good slope, so the water flows readily down the overflow pipe and won’t freeze,” he added.

Other options

“Another option we sometimes use on a dugout if it has a little bit of slope is to install a tire trough just a little way from the dugout and use a 12-volt pump to pump the water from the bottom of the dugout to the trough,” Vandervalk said. “The pump can be powered by electricity if it is available, solar panels, a windmill or batteries.”

“We use a 1.5-inch line to the trough and insert a smaller line, only 0.5 inches, inside it,” he continued. “We pump water up the half inch line into the trough and let it run all the time, always pumping water from the dugout and up to the trough.”  

The water goes into the trough and the bigger, outer pipe acts as an overflow.  When the trough is full, it runs right back down that line and back into the dugout, recycling any water that isn’t used.  

“This way the trough doesn’t freeze,” he explained. “The pump is running all the time, but these little pumps don’t take much power, depending on how far we have to lift the water into the nearby trough.” 

However, Vandervalk encouraged producers to consider how many cows they are watering. 

“If there are only 20 cows, we’d only need a very small pump, but if we are running 300 cows, we’d need more water flowing,” he said.

Heather Smith Thomas is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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