Ranching along the Musselshell River in central Montana has never been an easy way to make a living, but rising power prices, tougher environmental laws, and dropping surface water supplies have made a tough job even tougher. Fortunately, the sun has not stopped shining on this remote western valley, giving rise to hopes for a brighter future through solar energy.
Traditionally, ranchers watered their cattle along rivers and streams, but times have changed. Officials overseeing leased state grazing land have requested ranchers to remove cattle from fragile stream bank areas. Meanwhile, many of the natural springs and small creeks that served as alternative water sources have dried up following two years of drought. About the only option left to ranchers is to pump water from deep wells in remote locations: an expense that could put many out of business. Just stringing the power lines can cost $20,000 a mile, and the price of electricity in Montana is spiraling upward.
Last June, Nick Schaff started hauling water to his stock after the surface water on his land dried up. It was a solution, but not one he much liked. Eventually, he installed a solar-powered pump that sends a stream of cold, clear water into his stock tank from a 200-foot-deep well. When clouds pile up over the valley, two 1,200-gallon storage basins quench thirsty cows until blue skies return. The solar unit cost $2,700, including a tracking device that keeps the solar panels focused on the sun. It can pump four gallons a minute, which is more than enough water for his 75 pairs of cows and calves who drink about 25 gallons per pair a day.
At Jim Ballard’s place, a windmill that had supplied water to the family’s cattle for more than 50 years succumbed to age two summers ago. The cost to install a conventionally powered pump was out of the question, but a solar-powered system was within reach. By Ballard’s own calculations, the solar-powered water pump produces 1,000 gallons of water for about $1.85.
Although valley residents expect to see an end to the drought, they will still need to keep their cattle away from fragile riparian areas. And certainly no one is predicting a drop in the price of electricity anytime in the near future. So, given the alternatives, many ranchers are doffing their straw hats to more sunny days ahead.