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The trick with winter water to keep your cattle drinking

cow drinking water from a trough

The leaves are turning a bit early this year and we are gearing up for another winter season here at Greener Pastures. The “drought of 2015 has taken its toll on producers in our area. My neighbour stated to me that he has not seen it this dry in 55 years. Hay is very expensive so bale grazing is not looking like an economical feeding method this year. We have already booked 450 acres of cropland residues to graze this winter. We will be strip grazing on pea straw residue. When we start moving the cattle to the feed, (which makes sense because they have legs, and plants don’t) we need to worry about winter water for the herd.

Most years we do fine in my area allowing the animals to lick snow. It is my first choice. It is simple, cheap and usually quite reliable. If we have snow on the ground, or at least some still in the bush, I have let my cattle lick snow as a water source many times. Normally, I have had dry cows licking snow, but I have done this with bred heifers as well.

If you are thinking snow will work with cow-calf pairs, how do you think nature weans their offspring in the wild? If the cows are limited to water, their milk will dry off. If I have pairs, I normally like to have some kind of water source.

If I am dormant-season grazing on stockpiled forages or swath grazing, I feel that the animals are consuming much of their water requirements just by grazing. Each mouthful of forage also gives them a fair bit of snow. The forage is also high in moisture content. If they can “graze” most of their moisture, it does not take much time to “lick” the rest of their needs.

If I am bale grazing, snow still works, but the animals do not get as much of their moisture from grazing as the feed is quite dry and they are not getting mouthfuls of snow with each bite. In this situation, the quality of snow makes a difference. With poor snow, I recommend finding a water source while bale grazing. I have pushed it pretty hard with experienced cows who were bale grazing and drinking “crushed ice” as a water source.

Another option that I have used before is to just cut a hole in the ice of the dugout each day. Make sure you put a hot wire around the dugout to limit access so the animals cannot walk out into the middle of the dugout. That is a wreck just waiting to happen if you don’t. Your wire should cut across one end of the dugout where you have the hole cut to just allow access to the drinking hole. I would recommend a double wire electric fence system to make sure the cattle respect the fence — one hot wire and one ground wire.

Sometimes with residue grazing I need to come up with an actual water system. As I am on a different field each year, my system has to be portable. My first choice is a continuous-flow system. It is cheaper to pump water than it is to heat it. I have seen quite a few different styles of continuous flow. From a well, a dugout, a creek or a dam the water is pumped to a trough, a tire or a tank and then it is allowed to overflow back to the water source. The water is continuously moving so it does not freeze. It does not have to pump very fast as it is recycling 24-7.

In some cases my continuous flow has come from a well with a pressure system and flows to a water trough. In these cases, I simply use a hose to feed the trough that is partially controlled with a float valve. The float valve slows down the flow when the trough is full. The overflow goes out a drain on the far side, away from the cattle.  As this is just overflowing on the ground, you need to set your trough up so that the ice builds up downhill, away from the cattle.

The trick to the float valve is to keep the water flowing when the trough fills up and the float valve shuts off. I drill a very small hole in the elbow just before the float. This allows the water in the hose to flow continuously at a small volume but with enough pressure to also stir the trough.

When the animals are drinking, the float opens and you have high volume when you need it. When the cattle are not drinking, you get low volume, and high pressure which stirs the water. At -35 C this system has not frozen up. There is no ice on the water at all. I would recommend protecting the float valve as I have had one broken off by the cattle.

The overflow has another perk. The hill becomes a great toboggan hill for my kids.

For this season, I will have pairs out on my residue grazing so I have modified one of my summer solar-powered water systems into a winter water system by replacing the float valve with a motion sensor. I also have to make sure there is a drain out the bottom of the trough that allows the trough to drain completely when no cattle are drinking. The downside to this system is that our winter has limited sunlight so this year I am adding extra solar panels and batteries to ramp up the system.

To set this up, I cut a hole in the ice, slide the pump into the water and insulate the hole with straw. You need to keep the water from freezing where the water line enters the water.

The other trick is to make sure the water line completely drains each time the pump shuts off. You can’t have any dips in the line between the trough and the pump. This system turns on with the motion sensor when the cattle come to drink, when they leave it turns off and then the water drains out of the trough via a drain hole.

These are just a few of the options that we have used here at Greener Pastures. I know there are more and if you use a different system, as long as it works, that’s great.

This article was originally entitled “What’s with winter water?” in the October 26 issue of Canadian Cattlemen.

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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