“It’s not your opinion that counts,” says Barry Swenson. “It’s what the pencil says.”

Given that approach to running a ranch, Swenson noticed a few years back that he was feeding more hay than his neighbors. And in northeastern California, where his Alturas Ranches are located, that’s significant.

Swenson runs 3,000 cows in three separate herds of 1,000 each at elevations ranging from 4,200-5,200 ft. Located 30 miles from Oregon and 30 miles from Nevada, it’s cold, snowy country in the winter, and feed is a major input cost.

“He fed 1½ tons of hay/head over the winter, and we were feeding 2 tons,” Swenson says of his neighbor. The neighbor attributed the difference to the geothermal wells in the area that typically pump water in the 75-80° range. With warm water, the neighbor speculated, the cows didn’t have to burn as many calories to maintain their core temperature.

Research lacking

While that was intuitively obvious, Swenson wanted more details. So he contacted BEEF last year, asking if any research had been done on the effect of water temperature on winter cow maintenance costs. A search by BEEF staff didn’t find anything, so Swenson asked the animal science department at Cal Poly to do a search, which yielded similar results. No research has been published.

So Swenson did his own. Last winter, he fed 12 Angus-Lowline cross steers a pelleted ration of two-thirds alfalfa and one-third small grain hay. Six steers got the warm water and six drank unheated water. The steers weighed 500 lbs. at the outset and were fed to 800 lbs.

The steers drinking cold water had a 7:1 feed-to-gain ratio, while the steers drinking warm water came in with a 6:1 conversion. At a ration cost of $100/ton, that adds up pretty fast, he says.

Swenson plans to repeat the test this winter, this time with 100 Lowline steers split half and half, as well as repeat the smaller test with warm water, comparing the crossbred Lowline calves with black baldies.

To provide warm water to the cattle, the wells have to pump constantly. They have ample groundwater to do that, and the overflow runs into ponds, where it is stored and used to irrigate hay fields the following spring and summer.

Pumping costs

Electricity in the area is inexpensive, only 5¢/KWH, so it costs $20/month to pump a well, even with it running continuously. Previously, they would pump the wells just enough to fill a tank, then chop ice all winter. “We were using more watts to keep the pipes from freezing than we use to run the pumps continuously,” he says.

The obvious question that arises for those who can’t pump pre-heated water, is the cost-effectiveness of providing heated water to cattle. While he says it takes very little energy to pump water and a lot to heat it, he thinks it’s not out of the question, depending on the cost of electricity.
Even at normal temperature, well water is going to be around 30° warmer than freezing when it hits the surface. Swenson realizes that not everybody can pump their wells continuously, nor can they run electricity to heat water. With a little pencil pushing, though, and taking a hard look at alternatives such as solar power and insulated water troughs, he thinks it’s worth a look.

In the meantime, Swenson says if other ranchers have experience with warm water and its effect on feed efficiency, he’d like to collaborate. He’d also like to explore the effect of breed and mature size on feed efficiency. And he’d like to encourage university research on the cost-effectiveness of providing heated water to cattle. If you’d like to contact Swenson, email BEEF at brutherford@beef-mag.com and we’ll pass along the info.