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Winter Water – When Heck Freezes Over

February 12, 2014

The thaw has arrived, and despite the half inch of ice we didn’t have too bad of time.  This post will be of no use to folks who live in a colder climate.  I assume all you cold winter people have all your water bugs worked out and your ducks in a row.  Here in our maritime climate we don’t usually experience much more than a week of freezing now and then during our wet winters.  So it’s pretty easy to let your guard down and work yourself into too many water chores.  Those four, one hundred foot hoses come in pretty handy as long as it isn’t freezing, when they freeze you’re as good as out of water.  This post may be of more use to folks looking for land, or adding animals to an existing homestead.  Water availability is pretty important.

There are no foolproof ways to keep water flowing all the time when it freezes, but you can certainly make life easier in a number of ways.  I don’t know about your place, but extra cold weather here means more chores instantly, more feed to up caloric intake so the stock stays warm, and more bedding to keep animals dry.  Adding the chore of packing heavy water just makes life pretty dreary.

One way to keep water from freezing is to use tank heaters, heated hose, or electric hose tape.  All good as long as you have power.  Usually here a winter storm means a loss of power sometime during the duration of the storm, then you need a generator to keep the power on, and you also need fuel for the generator.  All complications when all you simply want is water for your stock.  I like electricity as much as the next guy, but it’s not a very resilient way to live.  So we try not to depend on it too much and treat it more like a luxury.

I’m lucky in some regards, we have kept our gravity water systems that have been in place here since the beginning of this homestead…say about 130 years give or take.  At that time everyone had gravity water, and gradually modernity and convenience has taken over and those simple ways went by the wayside.  Our municipal water available in this “town” is also gravity, so geographic luck maybe?  No matter, this is where I live and have to adapt.  Blending old and new isn’t always the easiest thing to do.  We’re not starting out with bare ground and building a system that we think is best, we have to fit in with what my ancestors thought was best at the time.  That can be confounding at times, sometimes what works doesn’t have to be reinvented, it just is.

Water storage tank at the highest point on the farm.

Water storage tank at the highest point on the farm.

We do pump water since our farm land is such that our flat ground is at the highest point, and the water is located at the lowest point.  The key here is that we use water power to pump the water using a hydraulic ram.  The ram is pretty simple with just a few moving parts.  Yearly maintenance may mean a new leather gasket.  Otherwise the system is pretty foolproof.  The ram pumps the spring water to a holding tank at the highest point on the farm, from there the water gravities to the house, barns, and greenhouses which are all sited below the highest point.  I can take no credit for this system other than not ripping it out and going all modern.  It’s a low pressure system so we rely on volume by way of a larger delivery pipe to give the illusion of pressure.  It’s plenty, no worries about pressure.

areas of high water use sited downhill of the water source

areas of high water use sited downhill of the water source

To drought proof our farm somewhat we have hooked up to the municipal system also, being a gravity system it’s there if we need it, and can be a lifesaver if something fails on our ram system.  To avoid cross contamination it is designed as a separate system.  Our untreated water cannot mix with the treated “city” water, and we have to have a yearly backflow test due to having livestock and greenhouses.

My point of explaining all this is that to bring home the idea of having ample water that can be delivered in the simplest form possible.  Winter chores are hard enough, the less worries you have the better.  Build resilience into your systems, think of, and use the grid as a backup instead of the end all.  Dual systems work really well, our thermosiphon hot water heating is a perfect example, our hot water system has two tanks, one electric and one heated from the wood furnace.  All the water is preheated when we have a fire during the better part of the year, and when it’s too hot to build a fire the electric takes on the full job.  It makes no sense to build a fire in the summer just to heat water, and it makes no sense not to take advantage of the electricity that is already at my doorstep.  I can be miserable or comfortable.  It’s easy to choose.

A newish addition to our water lineup is frost-free hydrants placed strategically at the barns and greenhouses.  I can pack a gallon of water to the hens each day pretty easily, but watering 22 head of cattle by hand is a nightmare.  So by investing a few hundred dollars in hydrants we have saved a ton in aggravation.  The farthest run for a hose is 150 feet, which is doable as far as draining the hoses before they freeze up goes.  The goal here is to carry as little water as necessary, after milk, water is about the heaviest and most awkward thing here to move.

Watering cows is the biggest chore but knowing that cows don’t have to have water on demand is helpful.  When we free-ranged our cattle, they watered themselves at springs in the canyons.  Once a day in the winter.  We would feed out the hay and in a few hours, you would see all the cows trailing, single file to the water holes.  With that in mind I can schedule my watering to fit in with feeding, warmest part of the day, and the cows needs without worrying too much if they are going to have water 24/7.  Cows like to eat to rumen fill and then add water.  I just have to use this knowledge to my advantage.  These folks cut holes in the ice once a day in frigid Alberta for 300 head.  Once a day watering, it can work.  The exception to this would be for producing dairy cows, milk is mostly water so take this once a day watering advice with a grain of salt.  My goal is always fresh water at least once a day or more if the situation allows.

drink cups GH3

drink cups GH3

For our laying hens, I usually cave and pack them water.  Eggs contain a lot of water also, so no or low water translates to less eggs.  The bright side is that a gallon a day for 18 birds can hold them, and if it’s really cold, I just water them several times a day.  When we had our pastured commercial size flock, we drained their water system each night and restarted the flow each morning.

Just a few ideas to toss around when designing, or redesigning your livestock water systems:

♥  Plan seasonality into your water system by carrying less high production animals during the cold months.  Here pigs and meat chickens are done before the cold sets in.  Dairy cows may be the exception, but planning in spring calving helps on the water end too, a dry cow requires somewhat less water than a producing milk cow.

♥  To keep your water system potable make sure you use vacuum breakers or some kind of backflow prevention from your stock tanks which can be contaminated with manure from time to time.

♥  Place watering systems, troughs etc., on south facing parts of your housing.  Most days, our chicken water system thaws by mid-morning in their hoophouse.

♥  Frost-free hydrants strategically placed can be a lifesaver.  Make sure to fence them out of livestock areas though to avoid animals rubbing on them.  Make sure to unhook hoses from your hydrant when it gets cold, if the hose is still attached and freezes your hydrant may too depending on how cold it gets.

♥  Have several different lengths of hose available.  The less hose, the less time spent draining hoses.  Have a plan for draining your hoses.  Our ground at the barn is basically flat, so I use a tree limb or the hay elevator for a high place to fish the hose through to drain it.  My husband is always “talking” about rigging up a pulley, but I end up draining the hoses so that little tidbit is likely to remain just an idea.

♥  Roof gutters to a water trough are a good idea as long as you make sure you dismantle the gutter before freezing so you don’t make a potential ice hazard in your barnyard.  Cattle can slip easily, splay and break their pelvis.  Despite our high rainfall location, I’m not much of a fan of gutter to trough applications unless you have a good way to divert the extra runoff away from the barn.  Others may find they work well in their situation.

♥  Tapered water troughs are nice too in the freezing weather.  We’ve used these Rubbermaid troughs for quite awhile and they are virtually indestructible.  When shopping at the local feed store leave the galvanized straight troughs there for display, they don’t last and if they freeze with water in them, the seams usually burst.  A splitting maul works good for busting ice too, much easier than an axe.  Once you break the ice you can remove the pieces.

♥  If you have to hand water small stock, the flexible rubber feed tubs with tapered sides make good waterers too.  If they freeze you can turn them over and remove the ice fairly easily.

♥  Have a plan B, or C and D too, it may be that you have to leave your water running enough to keep a trough full just for the duration of a cold spell.  Plan B here usually means bringing animals closer to a more convenient water source.  Here in the Pacific Northwest, it may only be a week of frigid temperatures, better to run up your water bill than injure yourself carrying water.  Muscle strain, or falls are real hazards and often make the cold weather harder to bear.

♥  Finally, plan your system as a whole making use of natural energy when possible.  Our system relies on gravity to work, which frees our minds up for more important tasks when we have freezing weather.  If you rely on electricity for your pump, or heaters, make sure you have fuel for your generator and that your generator does indeed work.

I know there are no earth-shattering ideas in this blog post, and for seasoned farm folks a lot of this is rote and can be done in the dark.  But I think lots of folks who have just recently moved back to the land have no idea.  It’s pretty easy to stock up on animals during the good weather, but keeping them watered when it freezes once in a blue moon is pretty difficult.

24 Comments leave one →
  1. February 12, 2014 4:00 pm

    Off topic, but one of your photos shows your high tunnel. In West Virginia people use their high tunnel extensively in winter to grow season extension crops. So far, except for some greenhouse operations between Mac and Salem, I have not found any local farms that feel it is helpful. Can you give me some idea of why you don’t bother?

    • February 12, 2014 4:31 pm

      B, it can be helpful, our problem here is snow, and after having several go down in deep snow when we couldn’t get to them in time. It’s like what do you save the expensive wood barn or the hoophouse? Truss designs, and lots of employees make the difference in snow removal or not. There are some that make it work, but I’ve just decided to grow what will make it without cover for the winter and go with that, otherwise I would be out there pulling off snow so I could make a salad in January or February. At first you think you’re doing the right thing, but really it seems like just perpetuating the store bought myth, if salad is available in the store then we should be producing it on cool climate small farms too. Mostly it’s a consumer driven practice, and we just decided to opt out. I still get a March to November growing season so that extends my gardening by months. Win, win for us to take off the cover and save the structure since we aren’t chasing that fresh salad in winter consumer.

  2. February 12, 2014 4:15 pm

    Be careful about gutter to trough applications; people have been going to jail for catching rainwater on farms or not getting a rain barrel permit.

    • February 12, 2014 4:22 pm

      It’s as bad here in Oregon. The state owns the water, build a pond for a keyline application forget it.

      • February 12, 2014 8:44 pm

        Wow – I’ve never heard of that – up here we catch as much rain water as we can for livestock and gardens – even in the cities people are encouraged to buy rain barrels or to design ‘rain gardens’ that take advantage of excess rain water to keep it out of the storm drains. That’s nuts.

        • February 12, 2014 9:33 pm

          Val, I think in the city it is encouraged, it’s just when you get out of the city and encounter some of the county bureaucrats that you may run into trouble. It’s silly really to restrict ponds, they add so much diversity, but I have seen several long established farm ponds drained because there was not a permit first. Hmmm, in a couple of decades lots of wildlife becomes dependent on a body of water like that. Makes no sense at all to remove that piece of edge effect.

  3. February 12, 2014 7:55 pm

    Hmmm…I agree with you on the salad customer. Why keep perpetuating the “everything available at all times” mentality? It isn’t real! We get a March through December season here in Northeast Massachusetts. And that is enough, as far as I’m concerned. Especially in this brutal winter! We do keep the plastic on, shovel off the snow and plant winter crops in our hoophouses. We are working on an early crop of carrots now, which will be ready in May. We put in plantings of kale and leeks and spinach in August for the family which we are still harvesting. Aside from our flock of egg layers and a horse and pony, we don’t as yet, raise livestock. Its in the plan to raise a few animals for our own freezer and we sure have lots to learn. Water is an issue here, mostly in the August time of drought. The rest of the year our wells, so far, are holding up. We do recognize the need to pay attention to our water needs for the future, however. Thank you for the thoughtful post, and great information.

    • February 12, 2014 9:15 pm

      Maggie, our climate is so different, we are able to harvest kale, chicory, leeks, and many times cabbage right through to spring when the kale bolts and all without cover. Same with roots which we can leave in the ground. We have virtually no rain from July through September and sometimes that stretches until November. Or I guess no rain we can count on unless we cut hay 😉 I do not envy your cold winters 😦

  4. February 12, 2014 8:36 pm

    Yep – we have plan A plan B and so on – our winters are long and definitely below freezing. Frost free hydrants – the best thing ever – we have one. Note to anybody thinking of getting one – drain the hydrant as well – ours the hydrant handle must be in the down position to drain the excess water below frost line. Hubby forgot one December – froze solid. Heat tape overnight, hot water – nothing worked. Ended up spending Christmas Day hunched under a plywood shelter with a tiger torch and a pick axe for several hours before we managed to thaw the thing far enough down to get it working again 😄

    • February 12, 2014 9:19 pm

      Val, oh yes, folks sometimes think that means it won’t freeze, but it will freeze even you if put the handle down,if you leave the hose attached and you don’t break that suction it can’t drain. Gotta love them though, they sure make my life a lot easier.

  5. February 12, 2014 10:43 pm

    We discovered this year that our animals would rather eat snow than cold water. I can understand that it is easier to peck or nibble at snow than to gulp a mouthful of cold water. We try to give them some warmed water sometime during the day, but then make sure they have access to clean snow after that. Our problem this year was the low amount of snowfall we had, but well below freezing temperatures.

    • February 13, 2014 5:48 am

      Joanna, our chickens love to eat snow, but I’m always afraid to just rely on that. There are some guys that don’t water their cattle herds at all here in the west, they expect them to eat snow and I guess they do. We never get enough snow to take a stab at that practice – I think my cows would not be happy 😦

      • February 13, 2014 6:16 am

        No I wouldn’t want to just rely on that either and that is why hubby takes out the warmed water too. They do prefer the snow to the water out of the frozen ponds and I suppose that is telling. Our sheep won’t even touch the water, they seem to prefer the snow, even though they are given the option. Hubby ended up sourcing the snow from other parts of the land to make sure it was always available.

  6. Mich permalink
    February 13, 2014 1:32 am

    Nothing worse then having to carry buckets and buckets of water to cows in winter, even a small herd…had to do that one year and then got smart about winter water. Lol.

  7. February 13, 2014 5:56 am

    Great (and very timely) information for us as we map out our water management system. We already had frost free hydrants on the list and are also setting up a ram pump, but having access to your wisdom and experience is priceless. I am eternally grateful for your well thought out and detailed posts. I’m sure many others have already suggested this, but you should consider writing a book on common sense farming. Your insights are invaluable. I’d buy it!
    Thanks for sharing all that you do.

  8. Beth in Ky permalink
    February 13, 2014 6:26 am

    Very insightful post! And don’t worry you still give some of us “old timers” a few light bulb moments. The hubby and I have talked about the possibility of piping the spring to the barn. Up till now it has only been fed into the pond. We also have a shoddy gutter/ trough system that could pretty simply be improved to go into a storage tank on an elevated slope behind the barn. All the neighboring farms are putting in the heated cattle waterers, hooked on city water no less! As of now the city water is cheap and in good supply, but who knows what the future holds. Thus the need for plan b &c. As for the folks talking about not owning the rainwater… what the heck!!! Glad I live in the Kentucky backwoods!

    • February 13, 2014 10:15 am

      Beth, those water trough heaters give me the creeps, we had the “luck” of getting a bad one. Cows don’t like to drink electrified water 😦 Our water is cheap now, and we hooked up because we heard the price was going from 2K to 5K for the same service. We knew we better just bite the bullet and do it. And it has been nice for the greenhouses for irrigation.

  9. February 13, 2014 8:31 am

    As usual, we lap up everything you write about. We are of the same thought regarding electricity being a nice-to-have, not an inherent right we can depend to be there reliably.

    One little note, living up here on the frozen tundra known as Canada (ok, it’s really not that bad, but it is definitely frozen), we have had the opposite experience with the water troughs. The Rubbermaid containers, when frozen, are done. Simply not possible to break a frozen plastic container solid with ice. Every one if them has failed on us. Our metal troughs, however, all sport the dents and abuse from our axes and sledge hammer and our beef cattle’s horns and they just keep on ticking. We have never had one split, even when completely full and frozen through.

    A neighbour is presently welding us a wood heated water heater to put in the trough as an experiment. In the meantime, it’s shifting a water heater between the beef and dairy cattle. They’ve figured out that they need to drink up while the water is flowing.

    • February 13, 2014 10:11 am

      COF, I’m thinking I love those things so much because most of the time I am moving them every day except during winter. Metal troughs just do not hold up to the daily abuse of in and out of the truck or being thrown over a fence. I was glad to see the last of our metal troughs rust through. Maybe you have a better grade of trough there… I finally have cracked my 300 gallon rubbermaid trough but it took 15 years of abuse. But again, we don’t deal with the cold here, just mostly the wet.

  10. February 13, 2014 9:27 am

    Oh so true that packing water is not fun. Even just for three little chickens. It has reminded me how far this new place of ours has to go before I get more livestock. We’re on a well, but that has an electric pump that doesn’t work worth a hoot when the power is out. I’m trying to decide which will be a better investment; generator, wind mill pump, or hand pump. We seldom have long power outages but you never know. Also, we have no frost free hydrants. One would be nice. All this reminds me we had quite the set up growing up for our horses. A hose piped from the bathroom corner of the house out to the trough that had a tank heater in it. I bet the run wasn’t more than 75 feet but it made sure we had running water. We lived in the high country (6200 feet) and frozen pipes were almost a guarantee unless they were seriously insulated in some manner. They even had pipes in the well house freeze one year at about 4 feet down. Not a happy week or so while heating and digging.

    • February 13, 2014 10:16 am

      I hear you, my hubby’s people are from Montana – 6′ down is the norm, here we just go 2′ so the pipe is out of harms way. I agree, nothing worse than plumbing repairs in freezing weather 😦

  11. February 13, 2014 7:21 pm

    Very informative post!

    Writer’s nitpick: I don’t think “albeit” is the word you want in this sentence:
    “Albeit from muscle strain or slipping and falling.”
    The dictionary definition is: “Albeit” is a very concise way of saying “even though”.

  12. February 14, 2014 9:25 am

    We use shorter hoses and keep them on a South-facing slope. After each use we stretch them all out and walk them out hand over and overhead.

    We also keep several lengths on a hose reel in the basement as an insurance policy. Finally, a couple of hoses live in the greenhouse.

    This is really only a problem when we have ice without snow. The cows don’t drink much when they are grazing through a foot of snow and we carry water to the chickens in the greenhouse with buckets anyway.

    Finally, we have multiple water sources from multiple wells. Backup plans with contingency plans.

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