This story was originally published in December 2020.
For Maine farmers, the winter can be tough. Layering up to do farm chores is a hassle, and freezing cold temperatures can keep you from wanting to go out at all. One common problem that farmers with livestock face is that the water that farm animals drink has this terrible habit of freezing when temperatures get too cold. Keeping that water liquid and potable is essential to maintaining the health and vitality of your animals through the winter.
“Animals, like people, have to have water,” said Donna Coffin, extension professor at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “Sometimes if we have really deep snow, there are some animals that might be able to get enough moisture, but most animals can’t.”
Providing enough water for your animals also ensures that they are able to keep producing through the winter. For example, dairy cows producing milk can drink over two dozen gallons of water in a day.
“If you have dairy animals they have to have enough water so they can give milk,” Coffin said. “if you restrict the water then they aren’t going to give you milk. [Similarly], if you have poultry that are trying to lay eggs, a lot of the egg is water. If their water is restricted they’re not going to lay as much.”
To prevent livestock water from freezing, you will want to start by insulating your water troughs in order to help the water stay liquid for longer.
“It has to be something that animals can’t get to,” Coffin said. “A closed-cell foam board or something like that would be better than if you tried to use the loose pink stuff we use in the house. If that gets wet, it’s not effective.”
Sometimes, Coffin said, you may have enough animals in a given area to keep the temperatures above freezing, but “it takes a lot of animals” — more than, say, you would have on a homestead or hobby farm.
But that alone is not enough, especially for farmers in Maine. You could lug out buckets of hot water from your house several times a day to keep water fresh and unfrozen, but this is a tremendous amount of work considering the amount of water that livestock need in a day.
Perhaps the easiest solution for a modern farmer or homesteader is to purchase some sort of electric or propane-powered heating apparatus, like a water tank heater or a heated bucket.
“If you have an electric water heater in your house, they would look similar to that but they have protection over them so the animals don’t get into them,” Coffin said. “If you’ve got a big trough or if you have horses, they have special buckets that are heated buckets. Farmers can put in a type of watering facility that utilizes some heat from the earth to keep the water from freezing, but it has to be a very specific design [and it’s] more expensive.”
Floating heaters or ones attached to the side of the tank, Coffin said, cost around $20 each at your local tractor supply store, plus the extra cost on your electricity bill or the cost of the propane fuel. Insulating the outside of the trough will also help you to save money on the power used for heating.
“If you’re trying to use an electric heater, you won’t have to use as much power,” Coffin said. “It depends on your tank heater. Some of them use the same energy [as a] 40 or 100 watt bulb. You put it on a thermostat, so it only goes on when it’s below freezing.”
Another way to prevent the water from freezing is to use a circulating water tank or an attachment to your water tank that will keep the liquid moving, which can prevent it from freezing.
Jacki Perkins, organic dairy and livestock specialist at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, said that when she was a kid growing up on the farm, her family used watering troughs with float valves, and generally there were enough animals pressing the float for water that the liquid was running regularly enough not to freeze.
However, relying on motion is an imperfect solution for really cold winters.
“That’s very weather dependent, and on cold nights would require extra attention,” Perkins said.
Perkins said that for those with only a few animals, and not a whole lot of disposable income to spend on heated water tanks, or continuous flow systems, offering lukewarm water several times a day is the only thing that she knows “will work for sure.”
“There’s a hack about putting jugs of salt water into the tank, but that fails more than it works,” she said.
“It takes a lot of salt to keep the water from [freezing],” she said. “Try taking a gallon jug and put it on the doorstep. If it’s under 20 [degrees Fahrenheit] below, it’s going to freeze.”
Coffin noted that researchers are always looking for innovative ways to make sure livestock get enough water throughout the winter. She cited a 2018 research project conducted by engineers at Worcester Polytechnic University that developed a freeze-resistant water delivery system that allowed chickens to drink using nipple feeders, which are preferable because they are less messy and less apt to attract contaminants than other systems but are usually difficult or impossible to use in freezing temperatures.
“In the schematic, they showed how to set up the tank outside so the chickens couldn’t get to it and bother it,” Coffin said.
If you have a little engineering ingenuity, you can try to create a similar system for yourself. The tried and true methods, however, will keep your animals safe, healthy and hydrated throughout the winter.