Eliminating the shock factor when livestock watering

Water and electricity can be a deadly combination for livestock at any time of year. Here’s how to prevent and safely troubleshoot problems

Check floating de-icers and discard any that are cracked or otherwise damaged.

This article originally appeared at The Chronicle of the Horse in January 2021. It is reprinted here with the permission of the author. 

As a livestock appraiser, I am asked to perform a wide variety of appraisals for insurance purposes. When dealing with death-claim reimbursements, the most common reason I am called is due to entrapment. It might surprise livestock owners to know that one of the other common reasons I am called is due to electrocution. Specifically, cattle and other types of livestock that have been electrocuted by an automatic waterer or floating de-icer. Here is what owners need to know about livestock water and electricity and how to maintain a safe environment for their animals. Livestock owners have access to a wide variety of water sources for their animals. But caution is needed when combining water with electricity. An automatic waterer, heated water bucket, or floating de-icer that is not functioning properly can result in an electric current flowing through the water or into the ground where the animals stand while getting a drink. 

Timothy Allen, a licensed electrician, says that “at the bare minimum,” this can give a cow a shock, causing her to avoid drinking water and leading to dehydration and other issues. 

“Worst case scenario, the cow is electrocuted while attempting to take a drink,” says Allen. 

How shocks happen

One of the more common problems that can occur with automatic waterers, even during the summer months, is ground saturation. This happens when the ground around the automatic waterer absorbs too much water and you are left with standing water that does not absorb into the ground. Saturated ground is highly conductive, meaning an electric current will more easily pass through wet ground than dry ground. 

“If an automatic waterer has electricity leaking from the waterer and the ground in front of the waterer is also wet, this can become a deadly combination,” says Allen. 

Another common issue results from the ground naturally shifting, which can cause electrical wires inside an automatic waterer to crack or break, creating electrical leakage. These wires can also be subjected to environmental conditions or become damaged due to rodents chewing on the wires. The heating element in an automatic waterer can also wear over time, causing a break-down in the insulation of the element. 

Floating de-icers or heated water buckets that have a cracked outer case or damage to the element can allow water into the wiring or electrical source. Any one of the above factors can result in electricity flowing where it shouldn’t. 

“It is important to understand that electricity always wants to find the easiest way to the ground. Livestock are more sensitive to electric currents than humans, as they don’t wear running shoes or work boots, which helps insulate and lessens the severity of humans getting an electric shock. Because animals don’t wear insulated shoes, they are more likely to get an electric shock or be electrocuted,” says Allen. 

If you suspect a problem with your animal’s water source, never stick your hand in the water to see whether the animals are getting shocked. The safest method is to shut off the power to the water source and call a licensed electrician. With extreme caution, a voltmeter — which can be purchased at a hardware store — can also be used to test whether an electric current is either flowing through the ground or in the water. For those who use electric fencing for their animals, an electric fence tester can also be used to check for current. Whether using a voltmeter or electric fence tester, Allen says one of the probes must be inserted into the ground to test for electrical leakage in the water. 

“But, if the leakage is going into the ground, the average person may not realize this, which creates a deadly scenario. This is why it is recommended that the power be shut off and a licensed electrician... be brought out to assess the situation.” 

Ideally, an automatic waterer should be installed on a cement pad. photo: Tracy Dopko

Eight tips for preventing an electrical shock

What can you do to help prevent an electric shock or electrocution from occurring? 

  • Make sure the ground underneath and around your water troughs and automatic waterers is dry. Ideally, an automatic waterer should be installed on a cement pad, surrounded by gravel fill, and all ground surfaces should be graded to allow water to drain away from the automatic waterer. 
  • Throw away cracked or damaged floating de-icers and heated water buckets. 
  • Install a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI), also known as a ground fault interrupter. A GFCI can help prevent electrocution by sensing when there is stray voltage and cutting the power. A GFCI does have its disadvantages. It is more prone to tripping as it’s sensitive to elements such as rainwater, snow and condensation. 
  • Make sure extension cords are in good working order and do not have any wear and tear such as damaged plugs; kinks (which can cause breaks in the casing); frayed, nicked or cracked casings; or deterioration due to sun exposure. The cords on floating de-icers and heated water buckets should be checked regularly for similar problems. Once a cord is damaged, it can cause the electricity to travel a different path than intended. 
  • If using extension cords, make sure they are grounded extension cords and have three prongs on the plug instead of two. Ensure all three prongs are in good working order. It is also important to avoid overloading extension cords. For example, only use one circuit breaker per floating de-icer and be mindful of what else is on the same circuit breaker. A consideration of length and size of extension cords can be a factor when having more than one heating source on a circuit. If in doubt, consult a licensed electrician. 
  • If installing a new automatic waterer, consider hiring a licensed electrician for the install. Depending on where you live, you may be required to apply for an electrical permit from your local municipality. This means that a professional will come out and inspect the waterer to ensure it has been installed and hooked up properly. It is important to note that for newly installed automatic waterers, some insurance policies may not cover electrocuted animals if the installation did not have an electrical permit. 
  • Using extreme caution, get into the habit of testing your water sources at least once a month with a voltmeter or electric fence tester. 
  • Pay attention when your animals are drinking water. For example, cattle and horses will test the water source with their whiskers first. If a cow walks up to the water source, reaches forward to take a drink and then steps back abruptly, this can be cause for concern. They may also avoid the area altogether. 

Tracy Dopko is a senior livestock and agricultural appraiser with Daventry Appraisal Services. She is hired globally to conduct appraisals and testify as an expert witness and has been in practice for over 20 years. 

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