The ins and outs of watering cattle in winter

There are lots of options but start by knowing 
how much water your cattle will need each day

This system features an insulated trough serviced by a pump running from a dugout and powered by solar panels.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Winter is here, and if you’re winter grazing, it’s not easy to know how best to deliver water to cattle on pasture.

But Stacy Pritchard of the Peace Country Beef and Forage Association has some tips to get the best results from your watering program.

Contrary to popular belief, snow can be an effective water source for animals, but it requires careful management, and that starts with knowing how much water your cattle need, said Pritchard.

“Bred heifers and dry cows require between 20 and 33 litres of water per day,” she said. “In the winter a good average to use is 20 litres per cow per day and lactating animals require 50 per cent more water than dry cows. It takes 10 centimetres of snow to get one centimetre of water.”

However, the snow has to be the right texture.

“Snow must be clean and soft in order to be used as a water source; cattle must be able to lick large quantities into their mouths,” she said. “Trampled or crusted snow with lots of ice crystals makes it difficult for cattle to consume enough to meet their requirements.”

There is also the safety factor to consider.

“Watering on dugouts and cutting holes in ice to water is risky to both people and animals,” she said.

Watering on snow can also affect the condition of cattle, said Conrad Dolen, a mixed farmer from Silver Valley, northwest of Grande Prairie.

“We have our cows eat snow sometimes but we’re not comfortable with it unless they’re in really good shape and we have high-quality feed,” he said. “We find our cows don’t eat enough if they’re licking snow, especially in the cold weather or if they’re eating marginal feed.”

The bottom line is that producers should have some kind of backup such as a remote waterer, said Pritchard.

“You could get some freezing rain or super high winds that crust the snow over or there may just not be enough snow in a given year. Either way you need a backup.”

The Peace Country Beef and Forage Association organizes tours of winter watering systems so producers can see what works and what doesn’t in their region.
The Peace Country Beef and Forage Association organizes tours of winter watering systems so producers can see what works and what doesn’t in their region. photo: Peace Country Beef and Forage Association

Off the grid

Geothermal waterers are probably the most popular type of remote watering system. Although these are constantly evolving — mostly in the ways animals access the water — the basic components are the same: A supply line which enters an insulated tube below the frost line.

“The insulated tube, whether it’s a culvert or even industrial tires, contains the geothermal warmth and keeps the supply line from freezing,” said Pritchard.

Geothermal systems that don’t require electrical power offer substantial energy savings, said Pritchard. And electrical systems such as motion-controlled water bowls can be made more flexible and cost effective with the use of battery power.

“Incorporating solar as well will help in accessing your pastures that don’t have access to the power grid.”

Pritchard recommends marine or leisure deep cycle batteries. One way to make sure batteries stay charged is to use discarded chest freezers as storage compartments.

“These will protect batteries from the elements. Warm batteries charge better so keeping them insulated against the weather is important,” she said.

Other factors

Geothermal units, or at least the geothermal components of the watering system, typically do not require a lot in the way of maintenance simply because there are not a lot of moving parts involved. However, it pays to be vigilant.

“When you’re watering in -40 C, every kind of watering system is going to require some maintenance because there’s always potential for even the best insulated ones to freeze,” said Pritchard. “When it gets as cold as it does in Alberta you want to make sure you’re keeping an eye on them to make sure there’s water for your animals.”

Solar-powered systems should be regularly monitored no matter what the temperature.

“In the north, for example, we only get so many hours of sunlight in a given day, so if you’re running your waterer on solar panels and batteries, it’s a good idea to check it every so often to make sure you still have juice in those batteries to run the pumps,” said Pritchard. “Consider providing a backup power source like a wind generator for stretches without much sunlight.”

Solar panels also need to be kept clear of snow and should have a minimum angle of 15 degrees. “This prevents buildup of dust and dirt and the rain can wash the surface of the panel.”

The capacity of the trough also needs to be matched to herd size.

“If you have capacity to water 100 head but you’re only watering 25 head there’s not enough circulation in the system and there’s potential for it to freeze up,” said Pritchard. Most of the water troughs on the market carry a rating on how many head of cattle they can easily water.”

There is funding available for some remote water system projects through Growing Forward 2’s On-Farm Stewardship Program.

“There is money available for producers for year-round watering systems, which includes winter watering systems, so that can help them out a fair bit,” said Pritchard.

But before investing in a system, find out what other producers in your area are doing. Many of the innovations in remote watering have been made by producers themselves, said Pritchard.

Her organization conducts winter watering system tours (the next one is in Birch Hills County on Jan. 30) so farmers can “brainstorm and troubleshoot… and network with producers facing the same challenges.”

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