Do You Have A Farm Water Backup Plan?

When your water source literally or figuratively dries up, you need an H2O backup plan to keep you, your animals and your crops properly hydrated.

by Daniel Johnson
PHOTO: Paulette Johnson

Last summer, we faced a situation on our farm that is never welcome news: no water. Turning on a faucet, spigot or hydrant anywhere on the property resulted only in dry silence.

We checked the obvious. Was the circuit breaker to the pump functioning? Yes, it was. Were the leads to the pump OK? Yes, they were. Then what was wrong? And, more importantly in the immediate sense: How would we water our livestock?

While we waited for our water to be restored, we had to implement our livestock water backup plan. This involved hauling many gallons of water twice a day from another property about half a mile away.

We were very happy when our water system was repaired, but we were also glad that we had a backup system in place ahead of time. It saved us a lot of uncertainty at the time of the problem.

Read more: Looking for water? It might be time to try dowsing for water.

A Livestock Water Backup Plan

Our situation brings up an interesting question for other small-scale farmers to consider: Do you have a water backup plan ready in case you experience a similar water problem? What if your well was to unexpectedly go dry or becomes otherwise unusable, such as from contamination?

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Where would you temporarily get water for your livestock in that situation?

A dairy cow might require as much as 20 gallons of water per day. A beef cow needs somewhat less, while a horse requires around 10 gallons daily. Smaller animals such as sheep and goats call for less than 5.

This is a lot of water to replace, especially if you have multiple animals. You hope, of course, that your well will deliver a high flow of sparkling water for years to come. But if you have a farm, it never hurts to have a basic backup plan for how you would water your livestock in the event of a water failure.

This differs somewhat from, say, a power outage. A power outage still affects your well in the sense that there’s no electricity to operate the pump. But in this case there’s nothing inherently wrong with your water system. A backup plan for this problem could be as simple as installing an appropriately sized gasoline generator for running the pump.

But in the case of a well or pump failure, a different solution is needed. You need a temporary way to continue to water your livestock while the longer-term problem of fixing the well is sorted out. This process could take days or weeks to complete.

farm water backup plan
Daniel Johnson

Here are a few options you can consider:

Shallow Backup Well

In some locations where the water table is high, it might be possible to drill a successful well workable by a hand pump. To be sure, using such a pump can be hard work and not something you would want to do every day for your livestock.

But in a serious pinch, such a backup system might save the day. Just take turns pumping.

House Well

Is there a home on your farm that is served by a different well than the barn or livestock area? While a very small-scale hobby farm might have only a single well to service the residence and the barn, a larger farm might have two (or more) wells to water the house and animals separately.

This is a great solution because it offers you an automatic backup.

Sure, it might not be as convenient to haul water from the house down to the barn. But you can certainly do it until your barn well is back up and running.

If the distance isn’t terribly far—and if it’s not winter—you might run enough hoses to transport the water down to the animals. Otherwise you can always move water in containers.

(If you have only a few animals, you might move enough water by simply purchasing some inexpensive 5- or 6-gallon camping containers.)

farm water backup plan
Daniel Johnson

Neighbor Wells

Rural neighbors have a long history of lending a helping hand during difficult times. A well failure could certainly qualify as this.

If you have good neighbors within a reasonable distance from your property, consider asking them if you can temporarily draw livestock water from their well and transport it back to your place.

It’s certainly a big favor to ask, as you’ll probably need to haul many gallons. But some people are happy to help. If this scenario might work for you, then your water backup plan could be as simple as purchasing and keeping on hand a 100- or 250-gallon water tank.

The tank could be hauled in the back of a pickup or strapped to a small trailer and easily transported out to your animals or down to the barn.

One possible downside to using neighboring wells? The water supply might not exactly match what your animals are accustomed to drinking. Ideally, your livestock would be transferred over to the new water gradually. But this slow mixing might not be possible if your well has malfunctioned.

And if your neighbor is on a municipal water system, you might need to filter the water to remove chorine.

Read more: Check out these 7 tips for stopping algae growth in your livestock water tanks.


This one can be tricky. Ponds and other surface water sources can certainly make for potential livestock water sources and offer independence from a well. But there are some downsides.

Livestock with unrestricted access to surface water can easily contaminate it or destroy the banks. So fencing might be required to keep them away from the majority of the pond.

Another solution is to pipe water from a pond to a holding tank or trough, perhaps through the use of a solar- or wind-powered generator.

There is also the problem of maintaining the water quality of the pond. You need to prevent the buildup of algae and keep your livestock safe from the dangers of deep water. But if you can avoid these hazards, a quality pond can be another arrow in your backup quiver.

farm water backup plan
Daniel Johnson

Getting Back in Business

In the end, however, these plans are merely temporary. The main goal is to get your well up and running again, and that is a job for the experts.

Get an initial evaluation into the main problem, whether it’s a failed pump, a pressure switch problem, contamination or perhaps even a well that has run dry during a drought. Often, you see signs that a well is having trouble before it stops, such as decreased water pressure, air in the lines or dirty water.

Sometimes, a water system is repairable, and sometimes a new well is required. There are many variables, and each scenario is different.

Key Points

If you do end up needing a replacement well, keep in mind a few points about the process:

  • It can take some time. A lot has to happen: applying for a permit, determining a site, drilling or driving the well, testing it, connecting to buildings and hydrants, etc.
  • The well company will probably examine records of other wells in the area to estimate how deep you’ll need to go to reach a quality water source. The geology of the area plays into this quite a bit, as the various layers of sand, silt and gravel act as filters to the good water below. Obviously, the deeper the well, the more costly, but a well should last a long time, and the important thing is to reach reliable water.
  • You should tell your well company that you will use this well (at least in part) for livestock watering. It might influence how many gallons per minute are needed.
  • Well-drilling/driving can be a very noisy process, accompanied by a lot of vibrations—both of which can startle and stress your animals. Stay on hand during the drilling process to monitor your livestock, and consider putting them in the barn if they’re more comfortable inside and away from the noise.

And when you go down to the barn tonight to water your livestock, remember to be thankful when you turn the valve and have good, clear water.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.

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