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Winter water for livestock

From the Ground Up with Steve Kenyon

Winter water for livestock

We have our fair share of drastic weather here in Alberta. In our environment, we can have temperature swings of about 85 C between winter and summer. I have seen a 45-degree shift in a single day. It went from 10 C and dropped to -35 C overnight. These temperature swings are a lot harder on animals than just having the cold weather. I would rather it just stays cold.

One of our dilemmas here in the winter is trying to keep water from freezing. It is usually an accepted fact that at some point, we will need to thaw out a frozen water bowl during the winter. That is not a fun job when it gets that cold. Last winter my water bowl did not survive the -48 C. I have learned that it is so much easier to deal with a frozen bowl when you pre-plan and have a heat tape or a heater of some kind already set up in the water bowl. All I have to do is plug it in.

But… I am not going to talk about winter water bowls today. I would like to describe my favourite method of watering livestock in the winter. You might have heard about my continuous flow water sites or my motion-activated solar wet wells before, but neither of those are my favourite. Snow is my favourite water source.

I have had many different herds lick snow during the winter over the years and I have never had a major issue yet. In some years I have even gone to the effort to provide water for them and if they have to walk too far, they decide not to use it, and they stop going to my water site. I guess my cattle are lazy.

Some people chop ice all winter. That sounds like too much labour to me. I guess I am just as lazy as my cattle. I have never liked using a water body as a direct water source, winter or summer. Not only do they contaminate it, but in the winter, there is always a risk of losing cattle through the ice. I have heard of too many “dugout disasters” to try that. All my water sources are either fenced off or the cattle are not allowed access to them once the ice forms.

Why is snow my first choice? Pretty simple, it is cheap and reliable. Labour is a huge cost that I always calculate into my margins. If there is snow on the ground, or at least some still in the bush, I have had many years of success letting my cattle lick snow as a water source. I have done this with dry cows and with bred heifers and they all did just fine.

Here are a few things to consider before you try this on your farm. If I am dormant-season grazing on stockpiled forages or swath grazing, the animals are consuming much of their water requirements just by grazing. Each mouthful of forage also gives them a half-mouthful of snow. With this type of grazing, not only is the feed covered in snow, it is usually high in moisture content. If they can “graze” most of their water requirements, it does not take much time to lick the rest. In contrast, if I am bale grazing or feeding a dry hay, the moisture content in the feed is a lot lower and it is not necessarily covered by much snow. This is when you will want to make sure you have good snow to lick.

What is good snow? Well, it is loose and fluffy and easy to lick. The alternative would be hard, crusty snow that is basically ice. I remember one year that most of the snow had melted away and you could see a trail to the bush where the animals would go to chew on ice. These were experienced cattle who had licked snow for many winters. They still did just fine.

Of course, I do not recommend pushing them too much when the snow gets that hard. You have to watch your cattle. Observation is key and I would not try this with cattle that are not already used to licking snow. Is the herd content or are they constantly on the move? Every herd will be different but observation is an important skill that every stockman must learn.

Before I wrap this up, I would like to mention one huge benefit to not having a water site during the winter. We need to be careful of environmental contamination. If you set up a water site for your winter-feeding system, be careful where you set it up. A winter of feeding or grazing with the same water site will create a large amount of manure and urine on top of the frozen ground. Be careful where the runoff goes from your winter water site. After four to five months of feeding, the spring melt can be an environmental disaster to any nearby water bodies.

Don’t worry about me though. I figured out how to solve this issue. I prefer not to have a winter water site. If the livestock are licking snow, the manure and urine end up being spread out across the land. Not only do we avoid the environmental contamination issue, but we improve our nutrient distribution. The worst water contamination issue I am guilty of was from swath grazing 450 acres for an entire winter and having one water site in the wrong location.

The only real issue I would warn you about is the need for a backup plan. Some winters, we have no snow for part of it. It can happen, so I always have a backup plan. I try to pre-plan and already be prepared to set up a winter water system, or to haul water or pump water in some way. It is always a good idea to have a Plan B. Nature never gives me much warning on the drastic changes she has planned. I rely on my old Boy Scout motto: Be Prepared. But the disadvantage of a long winter also provides the advantage of cheap and easy winter water.

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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