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Cheaper to pump water than heat it

Grazing with Steve Kenyon

The blue trough is on a continuous flow out of a dugout with a timer on 110-volt power.

Winter water was a very hot topic last month so I thought I would share with you how I supply my cattle with water in the dormant season. I am not afraid to allow my cattle to lick snow, but I have learned from the past to make sure that I have something planned for when we have a lack of snow. It always seems to happen for at least part of our winter here in Alberta.

Each winter I usually have some version of a continuous-flow water system running for my animals. I learned a long time ago that it is cheaper to pump water than it is to heat water. We live off-grid and it is very noticeable every time you plug in anything that produces heat. The generator sure grunts.

About 10 years ago, I read an article about a continuous-flow winter water system. I was very excited to try it and I have been using one form or another ever since.

I have worked with a few different grain farmers over the years, swath grazing or residue grazing, which means I am always winter grazing in different locations. In most cases, there are no water bowls already conveniently set up and running for me. But in my area, there is usually a dugout or a water body of some kind on every quarter so I have to come up with some type of winter water system.

A true continuous-flow system will pump water from a water source up into a water trough and then have the water return to the water source 24/7. If the water is always in motion, it does not freeze. The warmer water from under the ice is pumped up to the trough, which keeps the trough from completely freezing up. This system should only be used with an unpotable water source like a dugout or a wet well.

To set this system up I need a few components. The first thing is a power source and an extension cord. If I have 110-volt power, that’s great, but if not a small generator will work; 2,000-4,000 watts will usually do the job. I will need a submersible 110-volt sump pump and a length of 1.5 inch or larger in diameter water line from which I remove or disconnect the float switch. I will also need four square straw bales and a water trough of some kind. I usually install heat tape, just in case I need it later in the winter.

I try to pick a location along the edge of the water source with a bit of a slope down to the water. If it is too flat, you might have problems when the ice builds up later in the winter.

Set the water trough so that when it overflows, the water will run out the back of the trough away from the cattle and down towards the water source. Pick a spot off to the side of where the trough is set and cut a hole in the ice about 1.5′ x 1.5′ as the inlet hole. Make sure it’s far enough out into the water to allow for the water level to drop and the changing thickness of the ice. If you are too close to the edge, the system will not work for very long as the winter progresses.

I cut another hole in the ice directly below the trough to return the overflow. Without the return hole, the water will flow on top of the ice and continue to build up as it freezes.

I then attach the pump to the water line and slip the pump down through the hole. Of course the electrical plug to the pump still has to be above the ice. I set the bales over the inlet hole with the water line squeezed between them. I usually tie the cord to the bales to prevent it from slipping down into the water. The water line will run up to the trough and either pump into the bottom of the trough or over the top.

You need to make sure that the slope of the water line allows all of the water to drain back when the pump shuts off or the line will freeze. This is where I add the heat tape. Wrap it around the hose right at the water level just in case it freezes up. You can have the heat tape plugged in all of the time or just plug it in if the water line freezes up on you.

The heat tape is a backup; once everything starts to freeze it is quite difficult to troubleshoot problems in winter. I place another two bales over the second hole to prevent it from freezing up so the overflow water can drain back into the water source.

If you have 110-volt power available, you can plug in the pump and let it run 24/7. This year I added a timer to the system that’s currently set to turn the pump on for 15 minutes and off for 45 minutes. Should it get really cold, I’ll bump it up to 15 on and 15 off.

With the holes insulated by the straw bales and whatever snow has accumulated, we can safely shut off the pump for short periods of time without it freezing at the water level. This should reduce your pumping cost and extend the life of your pump compared to a continuous flow. Either way, it’s still cheaper than heating water.

If I do not have access to 110-volt power, I can still make this system work with a generator. I set everything up the same way, except that I pump continuously until the generator runs out of fuel. Each day I add a bit of fuel to run the pump for a few hours.

The cattle have access to the water for as much time as the fuel I add. With this system the pump is off for a much longer period of time so the straw bales have to be well sealed to keep the holes from freezing over during the night.

The heat tape is needed more in this situation to keep the water in the line from freezing where it enters the water.

When I start up the generator I may run it for a while with the heat tape on to thaw the line before I plug in the pump.

I’ve also thawed the line by pushing it under the water about a foot to thaw the small plug in the line that froze overnight. Usually it takes 15 or 20 minutes to thaw.

I have run a continuous-flow system out of a drilled well in the past, as well. A drilled well is a potable water source so you should never allow any back flow to go down the well to avoid contamination.

Many would argue this is a waste of water, but I say heating a water bowl is a waste of electricity.

In this situation, I again set the trough up on a hill and allowed the water to flow downhill away from the cattle. This system was run with a pressure system controlled by a regular summertime float valve. The only difference was that just before the float valve, I drilled a small hole in the fitting so when the float value shut off, a small volume under high pressure continued to flow through the hole. This stirred the trough, and when the cattle were drinking, the valve opened and we received the water faster.

These are just a couple of ways to set up a continuous winter water system. I do have a video and some pictures of these systems on our Greener Pastures Ranching Facebook page. I know a picture is worth more than 1,376 words.

About the author


Steve Kenyon runs Greener Pastures Ranching Ltd. in Busby, Alta. You can email him at [email protected] or call 780-307-6500.

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