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Getting Water to the Herd – Sometimes Old Tech is the Best Tech

The reason I often mention the Natural Resources Conservation Service as a good resource is that NRCS is known for providing one-on-one, personalized advice on the best solutions to meet unique conservation challenges. As an example, here’s a story from David Sanden, about how NRCS staff helped a rancher get water to his herd without using something expensive or new but, instead, a simple and time-tested solution. It’s an idea that might work for you.

Pearce Flournoy runs the Willow Creek Ranch, near Likely, California. During the recent drought, he visited the Alturas Field Office and asked how he could better utilize part of his pasture. He wanted to distribute his cattle more uniformly by establishing a water facility to draw his livestock to an unused part of his ranch. But for that he needed water.

“We initially talked about drilling a well,” said District Conservationist Bryon Hadwick “But the neighboring ranch had attempted a well and came up with a dry hole. They didn’t get any usable water, and there was a risk of that happening to Pearce.”

Flournoy’s nearest functioning spring was nearly a mile away from the pasture that needed the water and was much lower in elevation. “We considered our best options, and our civil engineer, Tom Hill, came up with a design for a ram pump,” Hadwick said.

Hydraulic ram pump technology has been around since the late 1700’s. But interest declined in the 1890’s as electricity and electric pumps became more widely available. The basic principle is to use a large amount of water falling a short distance to pump a small amount of water to a higher elevation. “A ram pump basically takes water pressure and multiplies it,” Hill said. “It works like a water hammer.”

The opening to the underground storage tank is shown in the foreground. The blue water trough is down the hill next to the buried pipeline that runs nearly a mile down to the pump.

A ram pump also has the advantage of not needing electricity, wind or fuel to run. “Pearce’s pump is bringing water up 220 feet in elevation by going downhill 12 feet,” noted Hadwick. “So it collects 12 feet of pressure and then pumps nearly a mile up the hill without electricity.”

“And it can pump 24 hours a day,” added Hill. “If we designed for a solar pump it would only pump about five hours a day.”

The ram pump is set to 95 psi. It propels the water at a rate of 78 pumps (about a gallon) per minute or 60 gallons per hour. It takes about four hours to get water up to the storage tank.

Water flows from the supply reservoir down the drive pipe into the valve box. Typically, less than 20 percent of the water will actually be delivered to the storage tank or trough. The remainder is overflow and directed back into the stream.

Pearce Flournoy and Tom Hill, NRCS Civil Engineer who designed the project.

“If we had done a well it would probably have taken at least as much pipe,” added Hadwick. Our cost is less with this design because we’re not installing a well, which is very costly. It’s certainly cheaper for the landowner as well.”

Flournoy said that he can get the pump started with ease, and when the livestock are not in that field he can turn it off. It’s also a floated system, so it can only fill up the water trough and the storage tank and then won’t accept any more water.

“We hadn’t been able to use that field for about five years,” said Flournoy. “I’m thankful that the NRCS could provide assistance and it was in their nature to want to help with these kinds of things.”


What Resource Concerns Are You Trying to Solve?

Engineering a ram pump system takes a bit of expertise. If you think this might be an option for you, contact your local NRCS office to see if they have technical assistance available.

You might have other needs as well. The table to the right shows what Pearce Flourney was concerned about and practices that he’s undertaken as a result. The last part of the list includes NRCS programs he used to help him accomplish his goals. These programs are available to assist farmers and ranchers because the things that producers are concerned about – water quality and quantity, wildlife habitat, and soil health – are all things that everyone is interested in promoting.

The point is, you don’t have to go it alone. Learn more about technical assistance and programs available to help implement new practices by contacting your local NRCS office.



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