Keep Your Animals Hydrated This Winter

When temperatures dip during the winter, livestock are at risk of dehydration, so make sure they have enough water.

by Anna O'Brien
PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock


What advice can you offer for keeping livestock water thawed and flowing this winter?


It seems almost counterintuitive that in cold winter weather, livestock need just as much access to drinkable water as in the summer. Horses suffer from impaction colic—often a result of too little water—most frequently during the winter, and cattle can show a decrease in conditioning because of winter dehydration. As animals burn extra calories to keep warm, they increase their feed consumption. Water consumption has a direct relationship with feed consumption: Eating more means drinking more, too. Animals that have ice in their water troughs understandably drink considerably less—or even worse, not at all.

The good news is that several options exist to help prevent ice formation in troughs and buckets. Consider the following options based on your herd size and the types of watering equipment you have, along with your budget, time and abilities.

Simple Insulation

For small operations with water buckets, clustering these buckets together into one place can help with insulation and decrease the area you have to cover when checking them. If you are rearranging buckets for the winter, make sure you keep them out of the direct wind and add extra insulation. Simply surrounding the buckets with straw bales helps. However, make sure all animals still have easy access to them. Older animals, debilitated herd members or those at the bottom of the social ladder may be bullied away from regular access.

Bucket Heaters

Portable bucket heaters are another option. These help decrease your chore of physically breaking up ice, but the downside is they need to be near an electrical source to function. Because of this, they are the best choice for a run-in shed or unheated barn.

Propane Heaters

Another option is propane stock-tank heaters for larger watering units. These don’t rely on a source of electricity so they are more practical for field use, but their downside is that you have to ensure adequate propane levels and make sure the pilot light doesn’t blow out on blustery days or in storms.

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South-Facing Shelters

If you have livestock shelters on your property, try to make sure that the opened portions face south for wind protection and that any waterers inside have access to the winter sunlight, if possible.

Automatic Waterers

Larger facilities with water troughs have a few other options. Automatic waterers solve many ice-related problems, but beware of power outages in storms. A pricey investment, these systems may be worth it for larger operations because they provide continually running water, which helps prevent ice buildup. Some units even have their own heaters. When considering these, factor in the price of the unit as well as the installation fee. There are also various electrical tank heaters that can be purchased and installed independent of what watering system you have.

Water Circulators

Water circulators can also be placed in troughs to keep the water moving. However, water levels should be kept high because these units usually sit on the top of a water container. They’re usually battery-operated, but in some cases, a solar charger could be used.

Snow Doesn’t Equal Water

One final word of caution regarding snow: Some large operations in remote areas rely on their animals’ consumption of snow for hydration, and you may be wondering if this is an easy solution for your farm. The best answer is no, unfortunately. Some domesticated livestock can learn to consume snow for water intake, but some individuals are reluctant to learn and there seems to always be a small handful in any given herd that never catch on to the practice.

Additionally, if snow is the only source of water, animals need to consume very large quantities to receive adequate water: If a cow’s daily water intake is 14 gallons, that’s a lot of snow. The consumption of cold snow also drives inner core temperature down, requiring an animal to eat more to stay warm. This creates a vicious cycle that ultimately leads to some level of dehydration and weight loss. If possible, it’s best not to rely on snow consumption for adequate water intake and certainly not for long periods of time.

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