This feature first appeared in the Fourth Quarter 2012 Issue of Lincoln County Magazine. Subscribe today!
by James Gatzke, USDA NRCS
Agriculture in Lincoln County is dominated by the livestock industry because desert and mountain rangelands dominate the county’s landscape. These rangelands generally do not have the water or the soils to produce crops or other abundant vegetation. Therefore, ranchers use livestock to harvest some of the vegetation and convert it into a saleable product – meat. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) administers over 80% of the rangelands in the county (over 5 million acres). Currently, BLM allotments provide feed for over 20,000 cattle and over 50,000 sheep. Many ranchers rely almost entirely on BLM land following the feed from the mountains to the valley bottoms. Ranchers are constantly looking for ways to rejuvenate their home on the range.
Water is commonly the limiting factor on Lincoln County rangelands. The distances between water sources are too far. Typically, water is found in springs and creeks in the mountains and foothills while the valley bottoms are dry. In addition, water is of insufficient quantity and/or quality and/or not available when needed. Since the beginning, Lincoln County ranchers have developed wells and diverted springs or creeks to provide water for livestock. In the 21st century, ranchers are replacing, revamping, and adding to old water delivery systems. The changes are driven by the needs of ranchers to reduce input costs because those costs are increasing at a faster rate than inflation. Meanwhile meat prices are increasing at a rate slower than inflation. Feed and fuel are the key input costs that need to be decreased to improve the economics of ranching in Lincoln County. Improving water systems on the range can eliminate fuel costs associated with water hauling and generator-powered pumps as well as increase access to feed.
With the increased costs of fuels, many ranchers are looking to renewable energy to send water to the troughs. Solar powered pumps are becoming the preferred renewable method because solar energy in the desert is more consistent than the wind. Solar pumps consist of a submersible pump designed to use solar energy, a pump controller, and mounted solar panels. Although initial costs are high, the lower maintenance costs of solar pumps make them more economical than windmills or generators. Solar pumps are ideal for low pressure and low flow uses like livestock water systems. Solar pumps are designed based on the water needs of livestock and the energy required to pump the water. If livestock use the range in the winter, the solar pump will be designed based on the solar energy available in the winter (i.e, short day length and low sun angle). If the design requirements vary little between water sources, solar panels and controller can be mounted on a trailer and moved between water sources. The most costly part of a solar pump is the solar panels, so a mobile unit makes solar pumps even more economical. Finally, USDA offers financial incentives for installing solar pumps that defray or defer the initial cost.
James Gatzke is a District Conservationist at the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Caliente
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