Trofftop - A thirst for knowledge

July 2005
What is the most important thing to check when you are buying a rural property? The view, privacy, local amenities, closeness of schools, suitability for horses, flat land for specialist crops?

Many people take great care to ensure that their potential purchase has features that suit their lifestyle and farming needs. But what they often forget is to find out whether there is an adequate supply of good water for stock.

Access to clean water has become a limiting factor in many areas. Blame it on El Nio and La Nia if you like but relying on rain is unwise, even on small blocks with plenty of storage.

A few favoured localities close to cities have treated water piped to the gate, and some others have plentiful supplies from clean streams or aquifers. However, the quality and quantity of ground water in many districts has diminished rapidly over the past decade, and getting an adequate supply for stock can be a worry, according to Cambridge-based water specialist Peter Bunker.

Households can usually get by on rainwater and a few tanker-loads from the dairy company in a dry season, but farmers are having to sink wells deeper and deeper for the farm supply, and that is expensive, he says.

What worries me more is that the reticulation of water to stock is often inadequate, and gets fouled easily.

Clean water = more production

Bunker points out that stock with easy access to fresh water will out-produce others faced with poor supplies. Studies at Massey University confirm overseas research showing an increase in milk volume up to half a litre per cow per day, improved food conversion efficiency of around 8%, and up to 23% extra weight gain on beef and sheep, when animals are given ready access to good water.

There are actually three issues here the first is water quantity, the second is quality, and the third is the way it is offered to stock, says Bunker.

Most farmers and block owners go to great lengths and expense to secure enough water for stock and other farming operations. That may involve water resource applications, divining, well drilling and installing pumps its all time-consuming and expensive.

Some water sources contain iron or other contaminants, and so quality becomes an issue and more resources are required to deal with it. Finally, there is the reticulation of water around the block or farm, and it is here that Bunker sees that several important improvements should be made.

In his studies of farm water supplies he has found that the trough space in paddocks is often too small for the number of stock that need to drink from them.

Drinking stock need space

"The ideal for dairy cattle using a circular trough is that each animal has a minimum of 600mm space, and enough troughs to allow them to drink a minimum of three times daily for five minutes each time. Lactating dairy cows should not have to walk more than 100 metres to a trough each time to drink," says Bunker.

I have seen many instances where the dominant cows get all the water they want and often prevent the more timid ones from drinking enough. This happens day after day, and so the timid stock are held back in production. Farmers think that they are poor producers, but thats not necessarily the case.

In this sort of situation, improving access to water for all cattle can result in a significant increase in milk or meat production. This is true for sheep and other types of stock too.

Another factor is that while the water coming into the trough may be clean, the trough itself is often very dirty. As stock drink, the inflow stirs up sludge at the bottom of the trough, making the water brackish and unpalatable so that stock avoid drinking any more than they have to and therefore produce less.

It makes no sense for farmers to spend megabucks on water supply and reticulation only to provide water in troughs that have been made filthy by dirt, grass, leaves, cud, dung, fertiliser, birds, dogs and so on, says Bunker.

Dirty water plus sun makes for wonderful algal growth but foul water. Uncovered troughs really need to be cleaned thoroughly about four times a year, but in practice it seldom happens. So the stock suffer and farm income falls, but farmers are usually unaware that it is happening.

So does this mean yet another unpleasant chore for farm staff or the lifestyle block-owners family draining troughs, bucketing out the sludge, scrubbing them with sanitiser, and rinsing before refilling?

Keep out the dirt

Not necessarily, and this is the good news. A trough cover known as the TroffTop is now available to overcome many of the problems of trough inadequacy and water contamination. Invented several years ago by Peter Bunker, the award-winning device is now available throughout the country from DeLaval appointed distributors.

The TroffTop is a made from durable, UV resistant plastic and fits snugly into the trough, moving up and down with the water level. Eight indentations in this cover form mini-troughs into which water flows. They are shaped so that stock can drink easily but only from one of the eight locations a cunning way of ensuring that one dominant animal will not hog all the trough space.

Any dirt, grass, leaves etc collect in the mini-troughs and dont reach the main trough. Debris can be flicked out in moments any time you are passing. Of course, ducks and dogs keep out of the water, and since the TroffTop is a tight fit no sunlight is available to any algae present. It also protects the ballcock mechanism.

While the TroffTop is a great boon to preserving water quality it is not the total answer to all water problems. In the past, matching water and troughs to stock numbers has largely been done by guesswork, and Peter Bunkers research has shown up inadequacies.

So he has put together guidelines for stock water supply, and is now busy designing new farm reticulation systems and advising on ways to restructure and upgrade existing ones and improve quality.

Says Peter: Water is the forgotten nutrient, and there is not enough knowhow about its quality and the way it is made available to stock. Also, some older properties have outgrown their original system while some newer units have been inadequately set up. Either way theyve ended up not delivering what is needed, and farm incomes have suffered because of that.

However, I have found that many farmers are literally thirsting for knowledge, and am pleased that I can help them.

With thanks to New Zealand Growing Today