Livestock Watering Basics

Published on Thu, 06/23/2022 - 10:02am

Livestock Watering Basics.

 Article and photos courtesy of Behlen Mfg. Co

 We all know that providing a consistent source of water is an essential part of caring for livestock, and there are a thousand different livestock watering systems.  Factors like the number of head, location, and budget play a part in determining what the best and most efficient way of supplying that water is for your operation.  “One thing that I cannot stress enough, is that whichever way you decide to water your livestock, you must monitor it constantly,” states Jeff Malousek of Behlen Country, a manufacturer of stock tanks and automatic waterers.  “On average a cow will drink at least one gallon per day per 100 pounds of body weight in cool weather and two gallons per 100 pounds of body weight on hot days.”

Stock Ponds and Natural Sources
There is something to be said about using what you have available.  Traditionally, stock ponds have been a great way to water livestock.  However, these water sources should be tested for quality.  Another detriment to these types of water sources is that, unless they are spring-fed, they rely on rain to maintain quantity levels.  These are inconsistent sources of water in times of drought.

Small Stock Tanks
Smaller stock tanks are great for use on acreages or in smaller lots with only a few head.  These types of tanks are user-friendly in that they are easily moved to where they are needed.  They also come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and materials.  Because of their smaller size, they do need to be filled up more frequently.  This is usually a manual process with the water source coming from a hydrant and garden hose.  During winter months, tank heaters must be used to prevent freezing.

Large Stock Tanks
Large stock tanks are usually more stationery and work great for pasture types of situations.  These tanks hold much more water than their smaller counterparts, therefore, they can handle more head.  They can also be filled manually with hydrants or irrigation wells, or they can be filled automatically with a float and valve system, windmill, or solar pump.  Steps must be taken to prevent freezing during the winter months for these tanks as well.  Freeze prevention methods include adding a heat source or creating water movement.  Ways to create movement include constantly adding water to the tanks and allowing them to overflow and using bubbling or aeration systems.

Automatic Waterers
Automatic waterers are the least “hands-on” watering system, but they do usually have a higher initial cost than a traditional stock tank. However, the greatest advantage these types of systems have is that they provide clean, fresh water automatically to livestock.  That is not to say that they do not need to be checked regularly to ensure they are working properly.  They provide that fresh, clean water with little to no effort on your part, aside from the initial installation.

Now there are nearly as many options in automatic waterers as there are various water systems, but it boils down to two basic groups: electric and energy free.  Some factors to consider when deciding what type of waterer works best for you include knowing if electricity is available at the installation location and the number of head that will be drinking from the unit.  Energy-free waterers are great options for locations that have no available power source.  If freezing is a concern in your area, know that these types of units are designed with the premise that a minimum number of head will be drinking from them.  When cattle drink from the waterer it is replenished with warmer, fresh ground water.  Ground water averages approximately 54° F.  With less head drinking, that warmer water is not replenished as often, and freezing may occur.  That is why the minimum number of head must be drinking from the unit for it to work properly.   Energy-free waterer designs usually include more than adequate insulation and a covered top with flotation balls that keep water cool during the summer months and provide protection from the wind and cold temps during the winter months.  With the proper number of head, some units have been tested to work down to -20° F.  “Think of these types of units like a Yeti tumbler for people.  They’re designed to keep things cool during the summer and warm during the winter,” explains Malousek.

If you have an available power source, you also have the option to explore electric waterers.  When researching these types of waterers keep in mind the wattage of the heat source.  These units will add to your wintertime utility costs, so using a lower wattage unit will help to keep those unavoidable costs in check.  Also, when talking about heat sources, look for units that isolate the heat source from the water.  Units that possess a heat source within the water itself run the risk of stray voltage shocking animals.  When discussing the number of head per unit, we talk more about the maximum head each unit can handle.  That number pertains less to freeze prevention and more to the water reservoir size and refill rate.  A unit with a higher maximum head usually will have a larger reservoir or a valve with a higher flow rate.  Because of the larger reservoirs, these units will usually have a larger or higher wattage heat source, adding to utility costs.  Using an appropriately sized unit is crucial to how efficient these units will work for you.

“Following the manufacturer’s installation instructions is imperative when putting in automatic waterers,” explains Malousek.  Most automatic waterers require a water line to be trenched to the unit below the frost line before being brought up to the unit in an earth tube or something similar.  Shut-off valves are also recommended, especially if several units are run on the same waterline.  This allows water to be shut off to the individual unit in case any maintenance is needed.  A majority of manufacturers require a concrete or cement pad to place the unit on which will add to the initial costs but is critical for the unit to perform properly.  

While installation costs and efforts might be more when compared to that of stock tanks and other types of holding tanks, the efficiency and time savings far out-ways them for many producers. Malousek says, “I encourage end-users to check with their local conservation district on cost-share programs when putting in automatic waterers.  Waterers not only aid in conservation efforts by better utilizing water, but they more than pay for themselves in time and utility savings.”