How to Keep Livestock Water from Freezing

A sorrel horse in a snowy pasture with woods in the background.

Providing water for your livestock and poultry in the summer is easy. But in the winter, keeping livestock water from freezing can be difficult, time-consuming and cold.

I used to watch the weather forecast each night with a bit of dread. Will it be cold enough for the goats' and horses' water to freeze? Will I need to carry hot water out to the chickens in the morning?

Over the past fourteen years I've discovered what works for my homestead and how to keep troughs and waterers thawed and livestock supplied with water in the winter. See if these solutions will work for you too.

How much water does your livestock need?

So, just how much water does a goat need per day? How much does a horse drink in a day? How much water do you need to provide for your chickens?

One goat requires 2-3 gallons of water per day, more if she's producing milk. A horse needs 5-10 gallons of fresh water per day; a dairy cow in milk can drink 30-50 gallons in one day!

A laying hen requires about two cups of water, while meat birds need even more. Your farm dog drinks about one ounce of water per pound of body weight in a day, but livestock guardian dogs out in the pasture will probably need more.

Barn cats need three and a half to four and a half ounces of water per every five pounds of body weight each day.

Keeping your livestock's water thawed and unfrozen is very important, as you can see. Without water, animals (and humans) won't last long.

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How to keep your chickens' water from freezing

Chickens need access to water all day long. They prefer to drink small amounts of water at a time, so frozen water will restrict the amount of water they can consume during the day. 

Chickens need water to digest their food; it softens the dry pellets or crumbles and seeds they eat.

Water also keeps a hen's body systems working as they should: it's essential to egg-laying as well as for waste elimination, and it helps regulate her body temperature.

If your chicken coop is electrified or is close enough to your house for an extension cord (be sure to read my safety precautions for extension cords below), you can purchase a heated pet bowl or heated poultry waterer that will warm the water enough to keep it from freezing. This heated base is for metal poultry waterers.

If, like mine, your coop doesn't have access to electricity, you'll have to try something else to keep the chicken water warm. 

For many years I carried hot water from the house to my coop several times a day. I'd remove as much ice as possible from the water pans and refill them with hot water.

Although I use the standard red-and-white plastic waterers the rest of the year, when the water inside freezes the plastic can crack. So in the winter I used black rubber feed dishes to hold water. 

I could turn them over and whack them on the ground to break the ice inside, or twist them like a plastic ice cube tray.

Sometimes the chickens stood on the edge of those rubber pans, which meant that the pan might turn over and spill the water inside. The chicken could get wet and risk getting frostbite. Or the chicken's waste would foul the water. (Pun intended.)

Last winter I found a better solution and I no longer have to haul hot water out to the coop several times a day. 

Now I fill an 18-ounce water bottle or a 20-oz soda bottle with salty water and immerse the bottle inside the plastic poultry waterer. The salt water bottle keeps the chickens' water warm enough to keep it from freezing.

A woman's hand holding an 18-ounce water bottle filled with very salty water.

Don't be stingy with the salt in the bottle: I used 1/4-cup to 1/2-cup of cheap table salt. Pour the salt in the clean, empty bottle and fill the bottle about halfway with hot water. 

Replace the top and shake until the salt is dissolved, then fill the bottle the rest of the way with more water.

Screw the top on well and put the bottle inside the waterer.

This method works best if you use a bigger waterer (such as the 3-gallon poultry waterer or this 7-gallon poultry waterer, the ones I use in warm weather too) and keep the waterer full of water. You'll find more details as well as my other winter-chicken-keeping tips here.

Be sure to check the salt water bottle regularly to make sure it isn't leaking into the chickens' water. Nobody likes drinking salty water - and it isn't good for chickens or for us.

Caring for ducks in the winter

Ducks love water, and they need to be able to immerse their beaks in water to clean out their nostrils.

A black rubber bucket on a metal table.

I use the same salt water bottles in the duck waterers. It's necessary though to also fill a black rubber feed pan with water in the morning and late afternoon so the ducks can submerge their heads and preen (clean their feathers), but it's a small pan so they can't climb in and swim. 

When the temperature is below freezing, a wet duck could freeze to the ground or suffer frostbite on their wet feet and legs.

How to keep the goats' water from freezing

My goats have a water tub in the summer, but in the winter I add an electric heated bucket. The cord is wrapped in metal so it can't be chewed through, but I run the cord out through the fence right behind the bucket as an extra safety precaution.

After all, our barn fire was probably caused by a goat chewing on an electrical wire. I don't want that to happen again.

Extension cord safety

If you need to use an extension cord with a heated bucket, trough heater or electric chicken waterer, please do so safely.  Follow these precautions:

  • Use an outdoor extension cord. Yes, it's a lot more expensive than a regular extension cord meant for in-house use, but be safe!
  • Don't use a wet extension cord.
  • Don't run an extension cord through snow.
  • Don't drive over an extension cord.
  • Use a cord-lock or cord safety cover to keep the plugs dry. (Last winter we used a plastic bag and duct tape to keep the connection dry. This is SO much better and of course it's safer. The Chief installed it and said it's "nifty," which is high praise.)

A man holding a cord safety cover on an outdoor extension cord. The cord-lock covers the plug connection where two cords are plugged together.

A green plastic cord safety cover covering the junction of two outdoor extension cords.

You'll find more extension cord safety precautions in this article from Safety and Health Magazine.

If you don't have electricity near your goat pen, keep reading for more ways to keep livestock water warm.

How to keep livestock water from freezing

These tips will work for cattle, horses, sheep and goats (although I wouldn't use a tank heater with an electrical cord in a water trough that goats use or that my livestock guardian dog has access to. I just don't trust those critters!).

An adult horse drinks at least ten gallons of water a day. Multiply that by our three horses, and that's a lot of water. It isn't hard during the summer, but it can be a big challenge in the winter.

And because horses eat more hay (dry fodder) in the winter, having access to all the water they want and need is extremely important to avoid impaction colic - in other words, they need more water to keep that dry matter moving through their digestive system. 

(By the way, this is a good time to remind you to supply a salt block for your horses so they will drink as much water as they should.)

A large black plastic water trough with an electric tank-heater device inside, keeping the water from freezing.

I broke ice on water troughs for years before I gave in and bought a water tank de-icer. I was afraid of the combination of water plus electricity.

Tank de-icers are made for this application, but it's a good idea to touch the water every few days to make sure you don't get a shock from a heater that needs to be replaced. 

The shock isn't strong enough to hurt you, but if you were a horse, you sure wouldn't want to drink from a water trough that shocked your sensitive nose.

I wish I'd started using a tank de-icer (also known as a tank heater) sooner. It truly keeps our horses' water from freezing in winter, and keeps me from having to chop ice with an ax or sledge hammer.

We had to move the trough up next to the house so we had access to electricity, but it was worth it - and it really wasn't hard to move it after we emptied it.

There are several types of tank de-icers, so be sure to get the one that's right for your trough. We use a Rubbermaid trough like this one so our heater has a metal guard to keep the heating element away from the trough's plastic sides.

Other ways to keep livestock water warm without electricity

If your water trough is too far from an electrical outlet for a tank heater, try these ideas to keep your animals' water as warm as possible.

  • Move your water trough to a sunny location.
  • Add several tightly-closed two-liter bottles of salt water to the water trough (the same principle as the salt-water bottle in the chickens' waterer). Even if the water freezes, the bottles will float, and the horses will push the bottles around which will break the ice.
  • Insulate the outside of the trough. Place the water tub inside a larger tub and fill the empty space in between with straw to insulate it.
  • Cover half of the trough with a strong piece of plexiglass. This works like a greenhouse while allowing the livestock to drink out of the uncovered half. A smaller opening keeps exposure to cold air at a minimum.

What kind of buckets keep water from freezing the longest?

I’ve compared plastic, metal and rubber buckets in winter weather. 

Water in metal buckets will freeze first, then water in plastic buckets. Black rubber buckets keep water warm the longest.

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More tips on keeping your animals' water from freezing

When we're under a winter storm warning I place a small sledge hammer, hatchet or ax underneath the water trough so it will be handy in case the power goes out and I need it to break ice. Our trough sits on top of bricks, which leaves a space underneath to stash the ax so it won't be covered by snow.)

Our livestock guardian dog drinks from the goats' trough, but if you need to provide thawed water for dogs or barn cats, you might use a heated pet bowl such as this one.

Rabbits handle cold better than they handle high temperatures, but it's a challenge keeping their water from freezing. Honestly, I haven't been completely successful yet.

I have extra water bottles for them, and keep one set in the house while the other set is in the cages. Several times a day I fill the extra bottles with water and exchange them for the frozen ones in the rabbits' cages. 

The rabbits also have heavy-bottomed water bowls that are harder (but not impossible) to tip over. I exchange those with new bowls several times a day too.

My horse Ella will be happy when the weather warms up and she can play in the water trough again. No wonder we have to fill the troughs so often in the summer!

With all these tips, you can keep your livestock water from freezing and keep your chickens and other animals well-hydrated and healthy this winter.

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