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Winter water systems for cattle

Keeping livestock water ice-free can be a challenge during colder months. In some pastures water availability is also an issue. Dr. Nora Paulovich with the North Peace Applied Research Association (NPARA) in northern Alberta says her family ranch uses a system that brings water from a dugout into an insulated trough nearby.

It uses a float and pump to fill the trough, and solar power for the pump, but still requires care during really cold weather. “It’s not worry free because we have to thaw out the intake hose nearly every day, but it’s better than chopping ice daily on the dugout, and safer for cattle than drinking through holes in the ice and risk falling through the ice.”

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When there is adequate snow cover, this helps insulate the pipe coming from the dugout. “If snow has good insulating quality and we can keep the water from freezing at the intake from the dugout, this system works. Last year we made it through a very cold winter but it took a lot of maintenance — thawing the intake hose at water level at least one or two times per day, and breaking ice in the drink tubes of the insulated water trough. We purchased the insulated water trough (with five drink tubes) from Kelln,” she says.

“We are now looking for some type of system that would be more foolproof and require less winter maintenance. The insulated trough works nicely, but we need a better way to get water from the dugout to the trough. Even though it drains back, we get some freezing at water level. Also we don’t get enough sunshine at times for the solar panel so we are often changing batteries,” she says.

“The best water source for us is snow, if we get it. We have wintered our cows on snow, and they’ve done well. Last year we got snow but it melted and then it dropped to 40 below zero. We were able to keep our system going to furnish water through a very cold winter, but it was a lot of work. We were thawing the intake pipe every morning and sometimes in the evening as well. We took it apart and sprayed hot water into it,” says Paulovich.

“We looked at one system a neighbour has, that works. He has a battery of batteries, and an electric eye. As cows come to water it turns the pump on, the trough fills up, and when they leave it drains back. There is only water in it while they are drinking. He has a culvert beside his dugout and the water is trenched through an underground pipe from the dugout to the culvert (similar to how a frost-free nose pump works). His solar panel runs the electric eye and the pump,” she says.

“This would work as a permanent system, but we like to bale graze on a different piece of ground every winter. We need something that could work in various places around our ranch. Each producer must figure out a system for their own situation.”

Tire troughs and springs

“If it’s a slow spring you might have to partially cover the trough or use a smaller trough with less surface area to freeze. We use different size tires to make the troughs.” If it’s slow flow and a small trough, he puts a 90-degree angle in the pipe where water comes in, which shoots the water across the surface and it never freezes there. This gives cows access to some open water where they can drink. The ideal situation is a fast-flowing spring.

He uses concrete for the bottom. “We use black poly pipe and pull it up through the bottom of the trough. Most of these troughs are designed for springs, so I have three pipes coming through — the intake and two overflows. The reason for two overflow pipes is that sometimes (if you are fortunate to have a lot of water in your spring) it takes two overflows to handle the excess water, so the trough won’t overflow, especially if water is coming in with pressure. Another reason for the second pipe is that sometimes people decide to take the overflow water from the trough and pipe it down the hill and across the fence to another pasture. It’s hard to put another hole in the concrete bottom so we put in two overflow pipes in case they want to use some of that water for another trough,” Vandervalk explains.

“There are also producers using my troughs with a solar watering system, and to keep from overflowing the trough they need to cut the intake pipe off a bit, low enough that a float can be put on. Whenever you pump water, you’d want a float,” he says.

Vandervalk’s tire waterers come with a concrete base and inlet and outlet pipes fitted in.
photo: Supplied

A unique way of preventing ice buildup is a method he’s seen done by another producer. “When we cut the top out of a tire we cut all around the outside, but he cuts about six or so holes/slots in the top part of the side walls, big enough for a cow’s head, and then have a tube (like an inner tube from a tractor tire) at each hole, and the tube goes down into the trough, into the water. This makes less surface area on top of the trough, and where a cow sticks her nose down through that circle where she drinks from, the tube goes down a ways into the water.”

The cattle are always pulling warmer water off the bottom. “The tube provides plenty of room for the cow’s head and it drops about a foot down into the water. These troughs have a float, since water is coming in with pressure,” says Vandervalk.

Many people use ponds or dugouts to collect water. “Our region is hilly, with a lot of slope, so we also use dams to hold back and collect water in those draws, and then put a water system below the dam to pipe water into a trough. This is different than a dugout. In my opinion, a dugout is in a relatively flat area with a depression where water collects and you just dig it deeper, for more storage. A dam is where water would run down the coulee and you put in a dam to catch it in certain spot,” says Vandervalk. The pond created by the dam or dugout is then fenced off from the cows.

Often the water collected behind a dam is seasonal run-off in the spring, or after a major rain, holding enough water to store for cattle use. “When we are making the dam we put a pipe through the bottom of it and put a valve on that pipe, similar to a stop/drain valve where the valve is below ground. The valve is always below frost, so if we need water for cows in January we just turn that valve on and have access to water — coming through the pipe at the bottom of the dam,” he explains.

These systems work well for summer or winter. “In summer we just put a float on the trough and water flows in until the trough is full and it shuts off automatically. For winter, the cows have less water requirement so we let it run continually, but throttle it down, for less flow. We put a pipe fitting down to half-inch or quarter-inch or whatever size we need, and let it run all the time, which helps keep it from freezing. There’s usually enough water in the dam to supply the cows for a while, especially if they are only there for a few weeks in that pasture,” says Vandervalk.

In this situation, the trough would have an overflow, which keeps the excess running on through into a buried overflow pipe that diverts the water on down the coulee, away from the trough. There is no overflow water around the trough to freeze and create a skating rink. “We usually use at least a 30-foot overflow pipe so the water comes out farther down the coulee. You don’t want the overflow pipe too long, however, or it might freeze and plug up. It helps if there’s a good slope, so the water flows readily down the overflow pipe and won’t freeze,” he explains.

“Another option we sometimes use on a dugout if it has a little bit of slope is to install a tire trough a little ways from the dugout, and use a 12-volt pump (similar to an RV pump) to pump water from the bottom of the dugout to the trough. The pump can be powered by electricity (if available), solar panels, windmill or batteries,” he says.

“We use a 1½-inch line to the trough and insert a smaller line (half-inch) inside it. We pump water up the half-inch line into the trough and let it run all the time — pumping water from the dugout and up to the trough. The water goes into the trough and the bigger, outer pipe acts as an overflow. When the trough is full it runs right back down that line and into the dugout, recycling any water that isn’t used. This way the trough doesn’t freeze,” he explains.

“The pump is running all the time, but these little pumps don’t take much power, depending on how far you have to lift water into the nearby trough. It also depends on how many cows you are watering. If it’s only 20 cows, you’d only need a small pump, but if you are watering 300 cows, you’d need more water flowing,” Vandervalk says.

“There are some other ideas I’ve seen. You can buy a frost-free waterer that has a lot of underground storage. A producer in our area with a lot of cows uses a series of up and down tubes that store a lot of water underground, and above the ground it has a fairly small watering bowl. The more cows, the better it works, with more warm water flowing. The underground tubes hold heat from the ground as the warm water comes from down below, in a pressurized system, with a float on the trough,” he says.

Solar setups

“Sometimes the water source is limited, or we may be dealing with a dugout, a board well, or there is no power source at the site. The main system we sell can service up to 600 cows. This is a geothermal tank (350-gallon insulated rectangular shape) that stays full of water all the time, using heat from the ground to keep it warm.” The solar power is used for pumping water up to the tank. The troughs and drink tubes are designed low enough that a calf can reach them as well.

The tank is fully enclosed and cows access water through a tapered, angled drinking tube. “The tube is shaped like the cow’s head, but the taper is from small to large (smaller at the top, like a bell). There is open water there — no ball or flap covering the surface. Because of the taper, ice can be readily pushed down and usually isn’t very thick. Depending on wind chill and number of cattle, we might expect an inch of ice at minus 40 degrees.” The cow can push her chin/nose down onto it and push down/break any ice that might be there, but it should be checked daily in severely cold temperatures.

The basic system sold by Sundog Solar has a geothermal tank and handles up to 600 cows.
photo: Supplied

“Depending on number of cattle using the tank, there is generally no ice at all, down to 35 below zero, or even down to minus 40 with a big herd. With a lot of cows drinking there is enough water movement that it’s less apt to freeze, and also the cows know that even if there is a little ice it just pushes out of the way,” says Jackson. If the tank and access points are designed properly, the water holds a lot of heat from the ground and is slow to freeze.

“The tube is designed so only one cow can drink at a time, with one tube for approximately every 80 cows. They learn to take their turn. A common worry people have, before they purchase these troughs, is that cows will fight over the water, like they do with traditional stock-watering systems. The difference with this design is that only one cow can drink, not one-and-a-half. They learn quickly that they might as well stand and wait because they can’t get any water until the first cow is finished. Cows only fight over water in a situation that humans create by giving them room for one-and-a-half cows to drink. The half cow always wants to be number one,” he explains. The dominant cow drinks first and the others wait their turn, knowing they will eventually get water.

“We also have a fully portable system that can be moved from one pasture to another when people rotate grazing. We can either add a winter package to the portable system or have one winter system for the area where the cows come back to winter pasture after summer grazing on various pastures. We can match the cow management and movement, and have the investment utilized 12 months of the year.”

On a properly designed system there is enough sunshine to run the solar panels. “On larger herds in some areas we add a wind generator in a hybrid system that can use both wind and solar power. We could put wind capability on all the systems, but this costs more, and is unnecessary in many situations. On a smaller herd we can usually get by fine with just solar power, depending on the herd management. Our systems are all designed to be expanded if a rancher gets more cows. We can have a 10-year plan ahead of time, and know which pieces and when we need to add them. We want a producer to have the flexibility to use this system year-round and be able to expand and use it for 10, 15 years or more. This makes it more cost-effective,” he explains.

Many people are trying to extend fall and winter grazing and use remote areas far from the barnyard, and need to have water out where the cows are grazing. There are many ways to provide water and each producer must figure out what works for his own situation and get the best return for his investment — with long-term benefits.

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