How to Keep Livestock Water from Freezing

How to keep livestock water from freezing (chickens' too!)
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?

How much water your livestock needs

So, just how much water does your livestock need each day?

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.

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

Over the past fourteen years I've found 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.

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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 me, 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 will crack. So in the winter I used black rubber feed pans 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. 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 it inside the plastic poultry waterer. The salt water bottle keeps the chickens' water warm enough to keep it from freezing.

Use a bottle of salt water to keep your chickens' water from freezing this winter.

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.

Black rubber buckets keep water thawed longer than metal buckets.

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 they can dunk 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.

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.

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, 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 to keep the plugs dry. (I bought one, because 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. Hubby installed it and said it's "nifty," which is high praise. In fact, he suggested I take the pictures below for this post.)

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 them!).

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. 

(And 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 tank de-icer will keep your livestock's 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 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 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

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)
  • 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 plastic. 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 or ax underneath the water trough so it will be handy if I need it to break ice if our power goes out, and it won't be covered up by the snow. (Our trough sits on top of bricks, leaving a space to stash the ax.)

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 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 Ella will be happy when the weather warms up and she can play in the water trough again, as you can see in the video below. No wonder we have to fill the troughs so often in 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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Related posts:

How to keep your livestock's water from freezing this winter. Tips to provide your goats, chickens, ducks, horses and other animals supplied with fresh, warm water during the winter.

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  1. Thank you so much for that tip about keeping chicken water thawed!! This is my first year on our off-grid homestead and I was concerned about keeping water flowing this winter.

  2. Anonymous11:04 AM

    We have rabbits and my girls have an outside enclosure to run around in year round,some of it fills up with snow during the winter,they eat/drink that for fluid intake,no worries about frozen water!
    Our boys in the cages get their bowls filled with snow and are happy about it!
    Thanks for your suggestions on how to keep big animals water from freezing! Very helpful!

  3. Anonymous3:35 PM

    Another great way is to add Beet Pulp Juice (if your animal can have it). We soak Beet pulp daily in water, we then drain the liquid off which we then add to each water bucket.I would say it is 2 gallons of Juice to a 17 gallon bucket. It lowers the freezing temp to -22 F. Our Alpaca's love it!


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