The Best Cattle Waterers for Winter

DIY Winter Water Systems for Cattle

The Best Cattle Waterers for Winter

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Cattle waterers for winter are a necessity in some climates where keeping stock water ice-free can be frustrating during colder months. Tank heaters work well if a person has access to electricity, but some pastures are far from a power source. Some people use propane heaters and haul propane bottles or big propane tanks for the heaters.

There are many innovations to keep unheated cattle waterers from freezing over. One strategy is an insulated tank. Concrete tanks, partly buried, take advantage of ground heat, to keep water warmer so it won’t freeze. These tanks have a cover, with a small opening for cattle to drink. You can open a portion of the tank, and the rest is partially buried and mounded over the top. With a lid, you can open it up to work on the float if necessary. Even if ice forms on the open part, water underneath is warmer and ice doesn’t get very thick. If the tank faces south, it catches more sun, and you can paint the front concrete wall black to absorb more sunshine heat.

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Another method for watering cattle in winter is an overflow system, where water runs continually into the tank and out again, piped from a spring. If weather is below zero you might get a thin layer of ice but circulating water keeps it from getting so thick that it’s a chore to break. You’d only have to check it if weather got below a certain temperature. If there’s a large
flow (rather than just a trickle) the volume of moving water won’t freeze until weather is severely cold.


Jim Anderson, a rancher near Rimbey, Alberta, solved the problem of stock water for regions with no electricity, or temperatures down to 40 below zero. His innovation, which he’s been marketing for more than 20 years, is a piston pump, like the old- fashioned well where you move the handle up and down. He modified this so cattle could push a lever with their nose, which raises and lowers the piston in a cylinder, the same as a handle used to do.

Nose pump cattle waterers enable cattle to push a lever with their nose, which raises and lowers the piston in a cylinder.

The three-inch cylinder is inside a larger pipe that captures warmth from the ground. Most people use a road culvert at least 24-inch diameter, set vertically and down at least 20 feet. The bigger the culvert, the more ground heat rises, to keep the water pipe in the center warm.

The culvert has two feet sticking above ground and the waterer is a small basin on top of the vertical culvert. The water source can be a shallow well, a nearby pond, or buried collection tank. Many ranchers use a fenced-off farm pond or dugout that collects run-off. Water from the pond is piped horizontally underground to the bottom of the vertical culvert, where it rises to the same level as the pond surface, but will not freeze.

With the pond fenced off, cattle can’t pollute it or fall through ice when trying to drink. The upright pipe is designed to drain back down several feet after a cow quits pumping, so there’s never any water left standing in the top part of the pipe to freeze.


Today, there are solar-powered units that can operate a pump in a well. One system works off a motion detector. When cattle walk up to it, the pump starts running and they can drink from a small tub at the top of the well. The pump runs for a short time and shuts off after the cow moves away. One system runs the pump from a wet well that gets water from a dugout (similar to the nose pump, except cattle don’t have to provide the power to pump it). The pump is in the shallow well and doesn’t have to pump water very far. When it shuts off after the cow leaves, any water left in the tub drains back down into the well, so there is none left in the tub to freeze.

Another type of system runs a pump with solar power from a regular ground well and can be piped underground (below frost level) to a winterized trough that works off a float system. One rancher put in a trough with six drinking holes. He can cover or open as many as needed, depending on how many cows are watered with it.

The trough itself has about six inches of insulation. As long as there is fresh water coming in all the time, it doesn’t freeze. The drinking holes go through the insulated cover. Cattle drinking throughout the day, lowering the water level to activate the float valve and bring more water into the trough, usually keeps it from freezing. Occasionally, those holes freeze over at night when cattle aren’t drinking much, and you may have to knock the ice out of the drinking tubes, but as long as fresh water comes in regularly, the trough won’t freeze up.

With any of these cattle waterers you still have to check them and make sure they are working and free of ice. With solar water heating systems, you have to make sure the batteries stay good and the valve switch in the tank doesn’t get knocked off kilter.


Gerald and Pat Vandervalk of Clareshom, Alberta, utilize springs on their ranch, and tire troughs. Gerald now makes and sells his water troughs, made from big tires. Springs run continually, and water from a spring is generally about 50 to 60 degrees F year-round and doesn’t freeze as quickly as water in a river or stream.

A Vandervalk tire trough.

If it’s a small spring (not much volume) you might have to partially cover the trough or use a smaller trough with less surface area to freeze. He uses different sized tires to make the troughs. If it’s a slow flow and a small trough, he puts a 90-degree angle in the pipe where water comes in, which shoots the water across the surface and it never freezes at that spot. This gives cattle access to some open water where they can drink.

This water trough in a high mountain pasture is fed by a spring. The tank is small and the water runs through it fairly swiftly, keeping it from freezing except in extremely sub-zero weather.

He uses concrete for the bottom, and black poly pipe up through the concrete. Most of these troughs are designed for springs, so he has three pipes coming through — the intake and two overflows. If you have a lot of water in your spring, it takes two overflows to handle the excess water so the trough won’t overflow, especially if water is coming in with pressure (such as gravity flow). Another reason for the second pipe is that sometimes people take overflow water from the trough and pipe it down a hill and across the fence to another pasture. Some people use these troughs with a solar watering system, and a pump. To keep from overflowing they need to cut the intake pipe off a bit, so a float can be put on.

Another way of preventing ice buildup is to cut several slots in the top part of the side walls of a tire trough, big enough for a cow’s head, and then put a tube (like an inner tube from a tractor tire) at each hole, going down into the water. This makes less surface area on top of the trough, and where
a cow sticks her nose down through that slot, the tube goes down into the water. The cattle are always pulling warmer water off the bottom.

Do you have other types of cattle waterers to keep water from freezing on your homestead? We would love to hear from you in the comments below!

Originally published in the November/December issue of Countryside and regularly vetted for accuracy. 

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