That living chunk of dirt with all its inhabitants that you just bought, now known as “The Ranch”, can get along for a time without food, but not without water. Certainly, rainfall will replenish moisture in the soil, which takes care of the amoebas, worms and insects. Others, like Bobwhites, snakes and javelina, get by on moisture in the food they eat. But a good many of the animals, wild as well as domestic, need drinking water on a regular basis convenient to their “safe” areas. That is not to say that you need a drinking fountain every 50 feet, but water plays a crucial role in the health of your ranch ecosystem. Availability of water also determines distribution of wildlife over the ranch which in turn affects your carrying capacity. You can have excellent brush on one side of the ranch, but without accessible water, the deer may not spend much time there. Quail, too, are known to hang around water so accessible watering sources, even if not actually used by quail for drinking, help increase their utilization of all areas of your ranch. You must consider your water assets first, before brush work, high fencing, or even your new camp house.
As anyone who has driven the State knows, Texas varies greatly in its vegetation. This is due in part to soils, but more so to moisture. Anyone who has been to Balmorrhea, Texas, can see what difference moisture makes. In otherwise desert conditions, lush fields are possible because of the natural spring there. At the State Park in Balmorrhea is a wetland sanctuary, made possible by the spring and offering welcomed respite to wayward waterfowl.
For the most part, Texas receives its’ moisture in the form of rain. Along the coast and up into the Hill Country, rainfall is often the result of tropical depressions. Out in West Texas, rainfall may most often come out of the mountains of Mexico, while in far North and Northeast Texas; rain may be associated with fronts from Canada or the Pacific. All of these systems affect rainfall in Texas, and you will soon become an expert on the influences which affect your ranch. In general, Texas has what is known as bi-modal rainfall, meaning rain comes twice a year, in spring and fall. This is important to ranchers and wildlife managers because they know they need to have reserves for those periods when it simply is not going to rain. These reserves are usually kept in two forms, cisterns filled by wells and ground surface impoundments. I learned recently of one ranch in far West Texas where an 18,000-acre ranch is watered by a single water well! The well is distributed over the ranch using booster windmills and cisterns connected by miles of pipelines. Another ranch I consulted on had one well and it went bad during the summer. Because the ranch was high fenced and did not have any surface water due to sandy soils, water had to be trucked in for wildlife until the well could be replaced, a period of several weeks. You should avoid scenarios like these and hopefully your research before buying has made the point moot.
How much water you need is an important question. For cows, I always allowed for 16 gallons per head per day during the summer. I held a two weeks supply on hand in cisterns just in case the well went bad. This was despite having several large stocktanks on the ranch. I recommend this because as sure as you don’t have a reserve, the stocktanks will go dry and your well will crap out. Selling your herd at the peak of a drought is no fun and is hard on your bottom line.
I also distributed the water into each pasture, providing water at one-mile intervals. That way, cows did not have to travel further than one-half mile to water. This may well be overkill, but I learned that this helps to disburse the cows over the entire pasture, improving grazing. I’m sure you’ve seen those stocktanks that are devoid of all vegetation for 300 yards around. This is because it is only natural for animals to try and avoid any extra walking, preferring to graze as close as they can to their water source. Once that is all down to bare ground, then they’ll forage out further. Adding water sources reduces this localized overgrazing. As an aside, I’ll pass on another trick I learned from an old prof at A&M; he said to improve grazing distribution, place the salt blocks at the outer edge of their range, in this case at least one-half mile from the water source. Seeking salt, the cows will move out over the range and not camp out so much at the watering holes; something that works with wildlife feeders and supplementation as well.
What does all this cow talk have to do with you? You want to grow trophy deer or buckets of quail, not run cows, right? Well, water is perhaps more important to wildlife than it is to livestock because wildlife must have water within its home range for that range to work. Remember, wildlife, be it deer, quail, or turkey, must be able to access water and feel safe while doing so. O.K., I know you’re saying quail don’t need drinking water and from pen studies, we know they can reproduce without free water, but can they rear their chicks? Quail, particularly chicks, are very sensitive to heat, and surface water, through evaporation and the attendant green vegetation, can greatly reduce surface temperatures. Also, quail managers have observed that during periods of high temperatures and low humidity, quail will sacrifice security to get to water. Sacrificing security is something that simply does not happen in Nature without a reason. Trust me; you should plan for dependable, accessible water at least every mile across your ranch regardless of your management goals.
Surface Impoundments; Stocktanks.
As mentioned, if you don’t have a creek, spring or river, water is available from two sources, surface rainwater impoundments and subsurface water. Surface water is dependent on a non- or slowly-permeable soil unless you have a renewable source such as a spring. A client recently diverted the spring flow on his new ranch so he could improve a road only to see his lake melt away to nothing in a matter of days. This is one reason I place such an emphasis on soils when considering a ranch for purchase. If you do not have abundant subsurface (well) water, you must have good clay soils for impoundments or else you’ll need to budget for numerous supplemental watering sources based on wells, storage tanks, and troughs.
If you do indeed have good clay soils, review your ranch on paper, measuring distances from surface water sources and drawing circles around each source using a one-half mile radius. Rate each water source from 1 to 3, with 1 being dependable year-round, regardless of the weather, 2 being dependable with normal rainfall, and 3 being dependable during wet years. The circles rated as a 1 should very nearly touch across the ranch. Where there are gaps, you should consider adding supplemental water sources. I often recommend “pothole” tanks, a hole dug in a watershed just big enough to bury a surburban or truck. In clay soils, these are a good idea. Cheap to dig, they can be designed to afford excellent access cover for wildlife as the dozer need only come in and leave on one side, leaving three sides brushy. Because they are small but deep, they are ideal for supplementing with a well, even if it is a mile or more away, using poly pipe.
But potholes don’t work well in sandy soils and do not have the longevity of a deeper stocktank. To fill a gap in your water system with an earthen stocktank, I think the minimum size would be 5,000 cubic yards in excellent clay, 10,000 cubic yards in anything less than pure clay. As discussed, any surface impoundment should be properly constructed, with a true coring of the dam and an assessment of the watershed. If your ranch is flat, you can sometimes use “wings” to gather water from several smaller drainages. I did that once near Big Wells and successfully put in a 10,000 cu. Yd. tank in a flat area that really needed dependable water. We “crowned” a long stretch of roadway, simply humping the roadway, and the resulting bar ditch served to collect runoff from several hundred acres even though there was not much in the way of a discernible drainage.
You should always try for depth over surface as your main loss after seepage will be from evaporation. In Medina Co., loss to evaporation as per the soils book is 60 inches a year. With an average rainfall of 28 inches, you can see that without significant runoff, you’re finished before you start. I always try for at least 15 feet in depth, with a 1 to 4 slope on the sides. This will require the use of a “scraper” in addition to a dozer, so you should get a true stocktank contractor vice someone with a dozer alone.
Assessing the best site for a stocktank and the watershed that will feed it is tricky and best left to the agents of the Natural Resource Conservation Service. Variations in soil permeability, vegetation, and slope all affect runoff and thus the amount of water you will catch with a rainfall. The NRCS technicians are trained to asses these factors. Not only will they determine where you can build a stocktank and estimate the watershed, they will design the pit, stake the pit for your contractor, and measure the final hole. It’s always nice to have a third party estimate the soil moved come time for payment.
As a very general rule, a 5,000 cubic yard stocktank is 90 feet by 90 feet and 15 feet deep with a 4:1 slope and requires 100 acres of good runoff, no sand, to be dependable. Currently, tank builders in my area are charging $6.00/cu. yd. to dig such a ‘tank. While on the subject of earth movers and land clearing costs, remember to try and lump as much of the work together as you can afford. That gives you some negotiating room with the contractor as it costs him a lot to move between jobs. Knowing he will have several weeks worth of work will make him more amenable to negotiations.
Existing stocktanks always have some silting which reduces their depth and may lead to increased seepage. Older stocktanks should be evaluated as to their current capacity and future potential. Cleaning an old stocktank is rarely possible, as to do so with a dozer or scraper the stocktank must be dry for at least a full year. Do not think that just because the surface of a dry stocktank is cracked and growing grass you can move in and clean it out. I remember one large lake that was so dry I could drive across even the deepest part of the old pit. However, once we got a dozer on it, the weight and vibrations broke the crust and turned it all to a sloppy pudding. We finally were able to clean it out with a wheeled front end loader at considerable expense. We justified the expense by deepening the pit and greatly enlarging the lake.
There are still some draglines out there, and there are some newer tracked backhoes that can reach out quite a distance from shore. If you have a small stocktank that needs cleaning, you might try and find a contractor with one of these machines. Otherwise, just dig a new pit downstream from the old one and leave the old one as a silt trap.
Leaky tanks are rarely worth messing with. Unless the tank is small enough for a plastic liner, and you have no intention of ever letting cows (or feral pigs) near it, I recommend moving on. It is unfortunate that rarely does time seal a leak; rather, time often makes the leak worse. In my dismal history at fixing leaking stocktanks, I have had no success with Bentonite or drilling mud. I may well have done it wrong, but it just has not worked for me. One stocktank I did fix had a certain soil that appeared to be good clay but would not hold water. Upon testing the soil in a lab, we found that the addition of plain salt would make it hold as intended. Again, the fine folks at NRCS saved my rear.
In sandy soils, stocktanks are a poor investment. Even if there is clay at deeper depths, you will have to seal the upper levels if you want the stocktank to ever be “full”. Sealing the sides with borrowed clay is an art and chancy at best. As with liners, a stocktank once sealed with borrowed clay should not be used to water livestock as they will punch through the seal, negating the treatment. I recommend the liberal use of concrete or plastic basins in very deep sandy situations and have even used old satellite dishes as basins for turkey. If you have a well, you can make a decent temporary dove pond using Bentonite on sand. Simply scrape out a long pit 40 yards by 20 yards with a max depth of 24 inches, pour in bagged Bentonite as directed and disk it in, retaining the bowl shape as best you can. Filling this pit two weeks before the season and keeping water in it will draw any dove in the area. However, since it is so shallow, it will require additional water regularly because of loss to evaporation.
If for whatever reason, your new ranch is not suitable for surface water impoundments, or if you want the security of dependable water at the flip of a switch, you need to maximize existing wells or consider drilling a new well or two. While not as aesthetically pleasing as a stocktank, this water is more dependable and can be just as effective for servicing wildlife and livestock. Water for livestock is pretty much cut and dried; you need a trough low enough for calves and a supply adequate to recover quickly from a herd-sized visit. That is why you often see cisterns at windmills or over-sized troughs like the King Ranch uses. With a rate of 5 gallons per minute on a good mill, a herd of 30 cows will die waiting for a small trough to refill. Of course, if power is available, I much prefer an electric submersible pump. They are reliable and even smaller pumps can produce great quantities of water if run 24/7. When basing your water system on an electric submersible pump, it is still a good idea to include a reservoir which can hold several days’ water in reserve, more if you cannot check on it often. It is a cruel fact that wells usually go down during drought and the well service company is usually swamped when they do. Please make allowances for such an event even if you think you have adequate earthen storage capabilities. Solar pumps are an option when power is not readily available. In shallow wells, I have seen solar pumps provide more water than a windmill and solar pumps do not blow over when you’re not around.
Recently, there has been a great increase in the use of the black plastic reservoirs. At about $900 for a 1,550-gallon tank, these are a great option. I know of one ranch in La Salle Co. where the landowner used a series of these plastic tanks to provide water for his headquarters and livestock. Well water there was extremely deep and it was uneconomical for him to drill a well. Instead, he had 20 of these storage tanks hooked together and he saved every drop of rain water that fell on anything with a roof. He lived on the place and raised deer, and always was able to get by with this system alone.
For wildlife, recovery rate is not as important since wildlife usually waters in small groups or singly. For wildlife, access is more important, as water that cannot be accessed with ease and some feeling of security is like not having water at all. Trough height is a primary concern, as a trough accessible to an adult Whitetail may be too high for a fawn and is simply a deathtrap to a quail. An inexpensive fix for this problem is to tap into the water feed line and run a short piece of PVC or poly pipe out to the nearest good cover. Add a drip valve to the end and wildlife of all sizes can safely water. If you have feral hogs, forget the PVC unless you bury it; PVC is a favorite toy for feral hogs. Just use poly pipe and tie it to a tree or stake six to ten feet from the end and leave the end with the drip valve unattached. The hogs will of course play nose soccer with it, but usually will not damage it. If you choose to install a basin at the end, the lines should all be buried, and the basin fenced.
Some people let their troughs run over to form a small mudhole. I don’t recommend this, particularly if you have livestock, as the cows will over time remove a lot of dirt from around the trough in effect making it even harder for wildlife to access. If the well can produce enough water to do so, it is best to dig a small earthen pond adjacent to the well out in the brush. Run an overflow line from the storage tank to this pond and let the mill overflow keep it wet. If it is an electric well, you can install a float on the side of the pond (remember to fence it well), in effect making it a large trough.
The use of poly pipe in water distribution is arguably the greatest innovation in wildlife management since the root plow. Properly laid out, poly pipe can distribute water over great distances using gravity alone. If used with a pressure pump and storage tank, you can run water virtually anywhere. Currently, electrical power is running $5.50/ft. in my area, while 2-inch poly can be installed at $1.35/ft. You can see that, given a strong well, it is much cheaper to distribute that water than it is to dig another well and run power to it. Sometimes a well simply will not make much water at any given time but can make water dependably. Such wells are still very useful if you add storage capability or adapt the well to interval use. On a recent job near Lytle, I had a weak well, but lots of power. I steam-cleaned an old oil storage tank and hooked it up to the well. From the storage tank, I added a booster pump and 35 sprinklers set out over 600 acres. The well was turned on and off with a float inside the storage tank and the sprinklers were controlled with a swimming pool timer. The sprinklers would come on and run for a period of time that would not quite drain the storage tank. The well of course came on when the level in the storage tank dropped and would continue to run until the float cut it off. Once the timer cut the sprinklers off, the well could catch up and the storage tank would be full for the next watering period. Costly and complicated, but it allowed us to accomplish our goal with a low-producing well.
Some poly pipe is resistant to ultraviolet rays and thus can be left on the surface, although I recommend burying any poly less than 2 inches in diameter. I don’t know how they do it, but in the smaller diameters, rats and javelina can smell the water and will cut the line into small segments to drink and, apparently, just for fun. Once this happens, the feral hogs move in and soon you have an unplanned mud hole and the cistern is dry. Speaking of dry cisterns, you should learn early on to check your water system(s) regularly if your ranch is dependent on well water. With or without a high fence, your animals depend on you for that water. Lastly, even in deep South Texas, wrap your pipes and well fixtures. An unexpected freeze can crack a pipe, burning out the pump, and draining the cistern, leaving your animals out of water until your next visit.