Whether ranchers and farmers are raising cattle, bison, horses, sheep or other livestock, reliably providing fresh water is a necessity throughout the year, but a particular challenge during winter when standing water sources can ice over.

With beef cattle and other livestock, lower water consumption can slow growth and compromise health; and in dairy cows or cows with calves, it reduces milk production.

Traditional livestock watering options, however, have serious limitations.  Ponds and lakes are often in the wrong locations for convenient livestock hydration, may not be sufficiently clean, or may be prone to icing up in winter.  Portable tanks usually must be filled daily and can be easily knocked over or damaged by bulls or other large animals pressing, pushing, or rubbing on them.  Waterers that rely on electric heaters to deter ice may be infeasible in locations far from the nearest electrical source.

In unheated systems, the water valve and plumbing may freeze up if there is not enough livestock drinking during cold weather.  When such systems rely on livestock learning how to manipulate a door, lid or ball to drink, this can be difficult for some animals.  In frigid weather, the door/lid can also freeze shut preventing access, or open which allows the water to freeze so it is undrinkable.

Fortunately, there are some innovative automatic “open water” systems that provide livestock with a reliable trouble-free watering source that will not freeze the valve and plumbing in sub-zero temperatures even with low to no animal traffic. 

Such partially buried systems keep fresh water open, uncovered and readily available to livestock, and rely on natural ground heat making electrical heating devices unnecessary.  These surprisingly durable designs prevent water valves and plumbing from freezing while providing the owner easy wide-open access as needed by simply removing the water tub.

Providing Water at -50 °F

Dustin Fischer, his wife and in-laws own and operate a cow calf facility with 200 head of cattle in Clear Lake, Minnesota.  To provide fresh water even during bitter cold winters, the operation uses both automatic waterers that utilize electric heaters and automatic “open water” livestock waterers from Cobett, an American manufacturer of farmer-designed, earth-heated waterers.

Unlike most other unheated systems that typically require cattle to open a door or lid to access water, the automatic livestock waterers are open water so the animals do not have to manipulate anything in order to drink fresh water.  “The open water system is natural like drinking out of a pond, so the cattle know how to use them right away,” says Fischer.

Because the system is an earth-heated, partially buried system with essentially just a tough tub of water above ground, electric heat is not required for valve or plumbing protection.  The system fully utilizes a wide column of ground heat by placing the tub inside the ground heat chamber – not just above it – so the entire tub of water is constantly and directly warmed or cooled by the surrounding underground temperatures.

Because there are no doors, seals or a concrete pad, there are no cracks for air leaks.  Lacking a door or covering that could accidentally freeze shut or open, the design allows Mother Nature to generate a relatively small amount of ice on the water surface, which can easily be broken off.

“We dealt with -50 °F below wind chill temperatures last winter, and none of my Cobett waterers froze up during the day when the cattle drink,” says Fischer.  “I just had to break the ice off the top and they were open the rest of the day.  Because they require no electricity, they save us about $50 to $60 per waterer each month in energy costs, so the savings add up.”

Fischer installed the open water systems himself, and says that the process is simple.
“They are really easy to install,” says Fischer.  “You don’t need an electrician to come in and do the wiring, and there is no concrete pad.”

Installation is typically a half-day, four-step process:  Dig a hole; set units in the hole; refill the hole with dirt; and then lay 12” of gravel on top of the ground before use.

Safeguarding Fresh Water

Farmer Curt Cline and his wife own about 350 acres in Albany, Ohio on which they currently graze about 75 head of cattle in a cow calf operation.  Previously, the Clines grazed about 450 sheep on the land before transitioning to cattle in recent years.

In the past, they had been frustrated with using portable 30-gallon tanks as waterers for their sheep and cattle.

“The tanks were prone to freeze up in winter,” says Cline.  “Not only that but if I just checked my water supply, I might go a day and a half without checking again.  But this could be a problem if a bull knocked over a tank or if cattle broke the tank hose or valve.” 

In search of a solution, Cline first installed several automatic open water livestock waterers from Cobett.  Based on his results, Cline ultimately installed about 24 of the automatic waterers in sizes that accommodate both individual cattle and groups of up to three at a time.

“With the cattle, we’ve had temperatures down to -15° F for a day or two, and as long as they drink a reasonable amount of water, we’ve had virtually no icing,” says Cline.  “At times, I may thump some ice on top with the side of my hand and it breaks loose so I can throw it out.”

According to Cline, the system is rugged enough to withstand rough use from his bulls.

“We’ve got a bullpen on five acres with a waterer in it,” says Cline.  “The bulls will go up to it and just rub on it and push on it with their heads, and it just doesn’t affect it.”

In fact, over the years the waterers have required essentially no maintenance, according to Cline.  He also appreciates that the waterer design allows easy access to the valve and plumbing if needed.

“The Cobett waterers are a very cost-efficient way to supply water out on pasture,” says Cline.  “The livestock have zero access to any moving or working parts, so it’s an absolute relief.  I haven’t had to do any maintenance since I got them about 15 years ago.”

Unlike typical waterers which have a narrow access hole for repair work, with the automatic unit lifting the water container out leaves a wide hole with easy access to the valve and plumbing if needed.  “To reach the plumbing, I just take the water container out and the plumbing is right there,” says Cline.

He adds that the design also makes it easy to utilize the waterer’s plumbing as a water supply line for other uses.  “There is a quick-coupler like fitting under the water container that I use as a water source to fill sprayers and other things I need to do.  It’s quite handy,” he says.

While farmers are familiar with portable water tanks and automatic waterers with electric heaters, in the long run automatic open water systems that use the heat of the earth to keep water readily available for livestock during winter may be the most reliable and cost-effective solution of all.