Keeping Livestock Water Open in the Winter

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It may seem obvious to provide clean and abundant water to your livestock, especially on hot days. However, frequent attention to water sources is just as important in the winter as it is in the summer. For horses, lack of water intake can cause a myriad of issues, the most common threat being impaction colic. When the weather is cold or extremely windy, livestock may not want to leave a shelter to go for a drink; they tend to eat more hay to stay warm; therefore, their water requirements may increase accordingly. Most animals (including us) are just not thrilled about drinking cold water during cold temperatures. Also, feeding alfalfa hay and providing salt blocks may increase water intake.

There are a variety of options on the market for livestock owners to keep water from freezing. These options vary in price, labor input, and efficacy. A few of the most common types are discussed below. All watering systems will benefit by placement out of the wind.

Automatic Watering Units

  • Most expensive upfront cost $400+ (depends on size and does not include installation labor).
  • Professional installation recommended.
  • Power outages will prevent unit from working (backup generator recommended).
  • Energy-free model.
    • Water bowl cover (floating ball or door that is easily opened by livestock).
    • No heating system = no energy used to heat, although energy is needed to keep water supply to the unit (usually a well).
    • Enough animals need to be using the unit so that the water won’t freeze
  • Built-in heating component model.
    • Thermostat should be set 32-34 degrees F and properly working. If set too high, the heat may unnecessarily turn on when animals drink.

 Electrical Tank Heaters/Deicers

  • Various sizes and models (ring, tube, cage, drain-plug, etc.).
  • Least-expensive ($20+ depending on size of tank to be heated).
  • Water-safe electrical heating unit is placed inside of water tank (floating or submergible).
  • Submergible heaters are less-likely to be bothered by animals.
  • Chew-safe cords.
  • Most heaters are safe for metal tanks. Check product details for recommendations regarding plastic or rubber tanks.
  • Many models have a built-in thermostat that will shut the unit off in warmer weather
  • Potential hazards:
    • Animals pulling out units will defeat the purpose. Keep the water tank full so that livestock are less likely to come into contact with unit.
    • Electrical malfunctions possible (tripping the breaker, etc.).
    • Power outages will prevent unit from working.

Heated buckets ($30-$65 depending on volume)

  • Similar concept as tank heaters, but electrical unit is built into a plastic bucket that is equipped with an electric cord.
  • Plastic buckets are prone to damage.

For the following devices, it is recommended to keep the heating unit and its attachments out of reach of livestock. This may require protective housing built around units, or placing the units on the other side of a fence or corral.

Propane Stock Tank Heaters ($420+ new)

  • Large (~50#) portable units that can connect to a 100# or larger propane cylinder (its fuel source).
  • Appropriate for heating larger tanks where no electrical source is available.
  • Thermostat regulated.
  • Pilot light used to ignite.
  • Marginal possibility of pilot light being blown out by strong wind.
  • Need to periodically replace fuel.

Water Circulators

  • No electricity or fuel required.
  • Battery-operated unit that circulates water to prevent from freezing.
  • Does not warm water.
  • Various sized units appropriate for tank sizes (400 gallons through 1500 gallons).
  • Thermostatically controlled to shut off during warm temps.
  • Functionality dependent on battery life (a solar charger can be connected to charge its battery).
  • Works best for tanks with automatic fill, such as a float, as the unit sits on the tank ledge and needs contact with water.

With all of the options available today, there is little reason to resort to “breaking ice” to keep water from freezing, and your livestock will benefit from consistently open water.

This article was originally published at iGrow, a service of SDSU Extension, January 2013. thanks the authors for this huge contribution.

January 22, 2014
Any recommendations on using geothermal heat for maintaining open water?
Do you have designs for insulating outdoor tanks to prevent freezing water?
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