Low-tech livestock watering solutions allow farmers to protect river
by Emily Leeson
Looking out over the waters of the Annapolis River from his farm in Paradise, Nova Scotia, Dave Whitman is expecting a canoeist to round the bend at any moment, as they frequently do on such a fine day. “There’s already been two by here earlier,” he says. “I often want to ask a canoeist, how many pastures do they see that run into the river?”
Along the banks of this river, agriculture is the predominant form of land use. Pastures, orchards, vineyards, field crops, and livestock operations all meet with the water’s edge. Whitman, who grew up on this farm, is acutely aware of the practical and financial considerations.
“There’s always the question of how you water your cattle,” he says. “I have a dug well which waters the cattle in one pasture, but in the rotation of the pastures, one rotation was the riverbank. And of course, I, like lots of other farmers, let the cattle wander into the river.”
When cattle amble into the river to drink, they trample down the bank. Erosion is sped along, and manure also makes its way into the water system. That sort of pollution has had a detrimental effect on the health of the Annapolis River. In fact, in the late 1980s the river was rejected for heritage river designation due to water pollution levels. Since then, a community-based non-governmental organization, the Clean Annapolis River Project (CARP), has been working to enhance the ecological health of the watershed.
“The nutrients in the manures can have some pretty serious impacts on both the water quality and on the aquatic life,” says Levi Cliche, executive director with CARP. “Productivity is driven up, creating algae blooms, and that can drive down oxygen levels in the water and create a situation where fish and other aquatic organisms become stressed and can’t survive.”
More than 10 years ago, Cliche and Whitman were part of an innovative project aimed at keeping livestock and their associated wastes out of the waterway. CARP organized the funding, Whitman contributed an in-kind investment of manpower, and together they installed one of the area’s first nose pumps.
BY A NOSE
Nose pumps aren’t a new idea. In fact, they’re based on the same principle as a very old idea, and Whitman thinks they’ve likely been around for a long while. “People just didn’t hear about them,” he posits. A relatively simple device – and a good way to use the river to water livestock without direct access – the nose pump works in much the same way as a hand pump. A hose with a filter and a foot valve on one end extends into the river, and at the other end the pump is mounted on a platform. The pump lever is situated above a small water bowl; when the cow pushes the lever aside with its nose, to get a drink, water is drawn up through the hose. Each thrust pumps about one litre of water, which sits in the bowl awaiting the next cow, who must again push aside the lever to access it.
Shortly after the initial installation of Whitman’s nose pump in 2005, he and Cliche held a demonstration day to share the success of the project with other local farmers – but the event didn’t quite attract the turnout they were hoping for. According to Whitman, no one showed up. “We tried to advertise it to the farming community as an opportunity to come and see different techniques that you could use to protect riparian habitats,” he says.
Cliche recalls, “There were cattle sales going on that same day in Lawrencetown, so we set up posters and invited people to come out. I was the one there that day waiting for people to show up, and it was a dirty, miserable day.”
Regardless of that first unsuccessful outreach effort, there was subsequent interest from the farming community, and Whitman’s nose pump is still proving, more than 10 years along, that there are simple and effective methods to merge good farming practices and sound environmental management.
The CARP project on Whitman’s land involved fencing off the riverbank, and the fencing remains in place. There was also some funding for planting trees along the bank, but the trees didn’t fare too well with the river’s wintertime ice flow. These days the riparian area looks untouched. “It was a worthwhile project,” Whitman says. “The riverbank grew up in reed grass, just like it naturally would.”
Situated properly, fenced away from the water’s edge, nose pumps should ideally be installed on a well-drained site that can withstand heavy trampling by livestock. Cattle are easily trained to use the device. By first introducing it to a small group, and maintaining it as their only water source, farmers can get the whole herd acclimatized to the system.
Across Canada, nose pumps have been used successfully on beef and dairy operations, and even for horses and bison. There are adaptations available for young calves.
Whitman’s pump has to come out of the river before winter takes hold, because it would freeze up, but out in Alberta, Jim Anderson has developed the Frostfree Nosepump, a design that works 12 months a year, regardless of the weather. Whitman says he doesn’t mind the seasonal set-up and take-down, or the general maintenance.
“The only thing that I’ve had to do is change the foot valve. It’s a no-brainer, really, if you want an easy water source.”
The hard part, he admits, is the fencing, which tends to require more maintenance than the pump. “How do you convince farmers to fence off the river and use an alternative water source?” Whitman muses. “Some farmers have miles of river frontage. Are they going to fence that all off?”
It’s a mighty task, but Cliche is hoping that’s exactly what will happen one day, for the sake of the river’s health. “My ideal would be that any watercourse going through grazing land would be fenced off, and that we exclude cattle from the water’s edge,” he says.
A trampled riverbank is bad news for aquatic life, but that’s not the only factor at play here. Over the years, many of the farmers who have approached CARP seeking assistance for livestock exclusion have done so because they were seeing significant erosion. “They were hoping to stem the loss of land,” Cliche explains, “by protecting the water’s edge, getting some vegetation growing, and shoring up the banks.”
Early this summer CARP had tentative approval for funding to install more riparian fencing, as well as some wetland enhancement and protection work. “Both of these projects could include potential to subsidize installation of alternate watering systems,” says Cliche. “Space for participants is extremely limited, but we’re always happy to consider new sites for this year, and for future projects. All of our work takes place in the Annapolis River watershed – roughly Berwick west to Digby.”
Thus far the group’s efforts have resulted in about 10 nose pumps being put to use. Whitman has found his to be highly satisfactory. Living on the banks of one of Canada’s most historically important rivers, he’s happy to play a part in making improvements – for the sake of the farm community, for aquatic life, and for those paddlers coming around the bend.
(Emily Leeson is a writer and the editor of the Grapevine newspaper, a community-driven arts and culture publication serving the Annapolis Valley. She lives in Wolfville, N.S.)