But what would happen if ranchers built fences along their creeks? What if cattle could only reach the water by walking into a stanchion? They could drink, but couldn't wade.
Adam Sigler designed and tested such systems on two ranches north of Belgrade for his master's degree at Montana State University. He found that water quality improved and the amount of sediment decreased in the water downstream from where the cows drank. One ranch in the study lies near the headwaters of Thompson Creek and the other near the headwaters of Story Creek. Both are spring creeks that flow into the East Gallatin River.
Sigler's study found significantly less E.coli bacteria, sediments and nutrients when stanchions were used than when cattle had free access, said Sigler, now a water quality associate with MSU Extension and MSU's Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences. The more cattle at a site, the more pronounced the difference.
"Armored stanchions eliminated or greatly reduced direct deposit of manure in the stream," Sigler said.
Systems like his would work best along spring creeks or irrigation ditches, Sigler said. This is mostly because of more stable water levels and issues with freezing. Ranchers wouldn't want their cattle ending up without water because of ice along the banks or water too far from the stream banks.
Jim Bauder, Sigler's faculty adviser, said the study proved that managing and controlling stream access works. It would also be fairly inexpensive.
"Typically all the materials are things already on the ranch," Bauder said. "You are looking at posts, fencing and gates, things like that. I would guess that, not counting producers' time and effort, I would think it would be under $1,500 in materials."
The layout of the armored stanchion system would depend more on the circumstances of the operation than its size, Bauder said. Large operations tend to have open access to large water supplies like ponds or reservoirs, he said. Sigler's ideas would apply most to ranchers whose cattle drink from streams.
"I would think armored stanchions would serve 100 head of cattle without too much trouble," Bauder said.
Sigler conducted his study in four pastures, two at each ranch. Within those pastures, he set up study sites where cattle were already used to drinking. Some of the sites Sigler left as they were. At others, he reinforced the stream banks, then built fences parallel to and at least 35 feet from the edge of the stream. Some of the fences were barbed wire with posts. Others were temporary electrical fences.
The fences built during the study allowed the ranchers to limit cattle access to water during seasons when banks were sensitive to erosion, but still allowed cattle into the stream-side pastures for short periods when the banks were more stable.
In addition to fences, Sigler installed four armored stanchions side by side along the streams. Each stanchion measured about 5 1/2 feet wide, which was roomy enough for two animals to drink at the same time. It was also wide enough to accommodate the longhorns that participated in the study. Animals preferred to back out of the stanchions, but they had enough room to turn around if necessary.
Scottish Highlanders, Black Angus and Herefords participated in the study.
Sigler built fences and armored stanchions in the fall of 2006 and collected water samples in the spring and summer of 2007. He finished his master's degree in June 2008, then traveled to Africa for two months with MSU's Engineers Without Borders. He is now working at MSU and presenting his cattle/stream findings to area landowners and at conferences.
Sigler's project was funded by the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Montana Association of Conservation Districts. The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks contributed fencing.
Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or firstname.lastname@example.org