Livestock Waterers: Water Without Work

These automatic livestock waterers use no energy and save a lot of time.

  • livestock waterers - cows using MiraFount device
    This MiraFount livestock waterer kept the author’s cows happily hydrated last winter, and it didn’t freeze once.
    Photo by Bryan Welch
  • livestock waterers - goat using WaterMatic device
    The WaterMatic is just one of more than a dozen specialized product lines offered by Ritchie Industries. It’s suitable for up to 40 cattle or horses, and goats like it, too.
    Ritchie Industries

  • livestock waterers - cows using MiraFount device
  • livestock waterers - goat using WaterMatic device

Author and “Contrary Farmer” Gene Logsdon says farmers should design their grass-based livestock farms so they can spend as much time as possible sipping lemonade and watching the animals graze. If your animals graze most or all of the year on pasture, and if you put out big bales when you feed them hay, you’ll have many days without any feeding chores. But your critters can’t do without water, the most important nutrient for livestock. So, in the summer, you fill troughs every day. And in the winter, you head out every day — maybe twice — to break up the ice. We’ve broken a few axe handles doing that.

Technology can help — several companies build clever alternatives to the daily drudgery of supplying water to your animals. These “automatic waterers” essentially are appliances hooked into water supply lines that can provide a reliable water source for your animals without your daily attention.

To evaluate the benefits these devices can offer, we installed five automatic livestock waterers from several companies and ran them through four seasons with our cattle, goats and sheep. There are “cup waterers” and other designs intended for installation in a barn, but for this article we concentrated on waterers designed for installation on a concrete pad in a pasture. We didn’t want to use electricity, so we looked at only “energy-free” models, designed to resist freezing without electricity.

Many other designs exist, however. Watering systems are available in a wide range of materials and sizes for installation indoors or outdoors. They’re all basically the same: A drinking reservoir fills automatically when a valve is triggered by declining water level. However, designers have taken several approaches to the challenge of providing clean water reliably while minimizing evaporation in summer and freezing in winter. Consequently, some specialized terms come into the conversation.

“Energy efficient” generally means the unit is insulated heavily and uses a low-drain electric heating system. “Energy free” generally means no electricity is required to operate the waterer or prevent freezing, although some manufacturers say supplemental heat may be necessary to prevent freezing in extended periods of extreme cold. Manufacturers also say energy-free models are more likely to freeze if they aren’t used by at least a certain minimum number of animals. There also are “continuous-flow” models that prevent freezing by running water continuously through the container, with the surplus flowing into a drainage sump.

To discourage algae and mosquitoes, many outdoor livestock waterers have some sort of seal — a lid or floating cap — that the animal pushes aside to drink. All waterers, including energy-free units, require a pressurized water supply, and protection from wind helps minimize evaporation and freezing.

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