Winter Waterers for Horses, Cattle and Livestock

Winter can make the most mundane tasks challenging.  This reality is clearly illustrated when it comes to watering animals.  For as long as man has worked alongside horse and livestock, watering methods and their seasonal variations have persisted.

As fate would have it, when diving temperatures make it most difficult to provide clean, fresh water, this is a time when fresh clean water is critical to good health.

During cold months animals digestion convert feeds into energy that results in body heat.  This process is critical to winter survival.  The key to feed consumption in cold weather is hydration.[/fusion_text][fusion_text]

Common Causes of Dehydration  in Winter:

  • Icy water too cold to consume comfortably

  • Water source is completely frozen over

  • Animals left to survive on snow and ice

  • Water is too hot due to improper adjustment on heater

  • Water has electric current due to malfunctioning heating element

Cold water is a little bit of a hidden cause of dehydration.  Not everyone is aware that studies prove increasing water temperature from just above freezing to  40°- 65° Fahrenheit, will increase the amount of water consumed by 40%.

That’s right, 40%!  That’s A LOT.  Inadequate water intake for sustained periods has two immediate impacts that are the starting point of bigger problems:

  • Decreased feed intake; This will have a direct impact on the animal’s ability to maintain body weight as well as decrease their ability to consume enough feed/energy to tolerate the cold weather.
  • Impaction colic; This risk is more widely discussed, and possibly more harmful. If a horse doesn’t consume enough water either because it’s frozen or it’s too cold for them to drink comfortably, the risk of impaction colic rises sharply. On top of that, even if the horse does drink a proper amount of water; water that is too cold has a negative impact on the digestive tract and causes disturbances during digestion and absorption.

Consuming 40% less water over the course of several months because it’s too cold is clearly not good for any animal.  So what can we do about it?  We can use our common sense.  As best you are able to, provide fresh, clean water to your animals as much as possible.

A fair rule of thumb is that if you wouldn’t be interested in consuming the water yourself, chances are your animals aren’t that interested either.

Waterer Options for Winter

Horse and livestock owners have many common and popular waterer options to choose from when deciding what is best for them and their animals.

Primary Variables that Distinguish Waterers:

  • Permanent versus Portable

  • Electric versus Non Electric

These distinctions are never more pronounced than in the winter months.

Winter Watering: Permanent versus Portable

The scale here spans from:

  • Buckets (ultra-portable)
  • Troughs/tanks (semi-portable)
  • Automatic waterers (mostly permanent)

The general rule of thumb, particularly as it relates to watering in the winter is, the more portable a water solution is, the more likely it will be quick to freeze, and simultaneously it will be more expensive to operate (because of electricity consumption) than less mobile or more permanent / automatic solutions.

In large part the trade off is that portable can be up and running instantly, but carries a high operating cost as it relates to both dollar cost (electric / hydro bill) as well as time cost because someone will be required to maintain, fill, and generally speaking pay more attention to portable solutions versus more permanent solutions that tend to have more self-sustaining qualities.

Winter Watering: Electricity vs No Electricity

There is no denying that wiring electricity to automatic waterers is considered the norm in some areas.  At one point it was a cutting edge breakthrough, then it became the standard, and now, there are other alternatives to consider.

There are some definite benefits to utilizing electricity.  Inherently waterers that use electricity are typically heating water to prevent it from freezing.  This means there is never any training and implementation can be as simple as putting a heating element inside of a trough or stock tank.

The Upside of Electric

  • Convenience
  • No training
  • Quick Implementation

With electricity in the equation, there is also potential for risk.  The extreme side of risk includes fire, electric shock, and in extreme cases the possibility of animal deaths.  You do not need to look far on forum pages to find stories of water carrying a current whether from a tank heater or automatic electric waterer.  In comparison, the less extreme downside of electric includes high operating and maintenance costs, which isn’t great, but arguably better than physical harm or death.

The Unpleasant Side of Electric

  • Potential for barn fires
  • Malfunctioning unit could electrocute animals
  • High cost of Electric / Hydro
  • Cost and time of maintaining Heating Elements
  • Malfunctioning Element could overheat
  • Environmental impact of electricity use

Within the electric waterer family there are two main categories.

Water Troughs with Submersible Heating Elements

Placing a submersible heater is a bucket or trough is by far the quickest and easiest method to prevent freezing water.  This method also comes with the largest negatives.  Primarily safety and operating costs.

Horses have been known to chew on submersible heaters, play with them, knock them out of their water source, and this is just the beginning.  Horseplay can lead to situations that are hazardous.  Frayed wires or a malfunctioning unit can lead to an electric charge in the water, or worse, a barn fire.  This is why it’s imperative to check this style of heater daily (at a minimum) for any signs of pending danger.

Operating costs is the other major downside to this solution.  As you can see with our Energy Costs Calculator, submersible heaters are by far the most expensive method to prevent frozen water during the winter.

Automatic Heated Waterers

This is the more permanent / automatic waterer.  The electricity provided to this unit is typically run underground and comes up from underneath the unit.  Typical characteristics of this style waterer are that there is a bowl with standing water.  This is usually controlled by a float valve (like in the back of a toilet).  When the water drops below a certain level, the valve opens, and the water is replenished.  

The water standing in the bowl is heated to prevent it from freezing.  The nice thing about this solution is that you can always see if there is water in the bowl by visually inspecting the water source.  However, due to some of the risks outlined above, it’s not a bad idea to physically inspect the water source to ensure the water is not too hot, or possibly carrying an electric current.

While convenience of use is the major upside with this option, what it gains in convenience it loses with cost and maintenance.  Because there is standing water, you will usually need to scrub algae and/or growth out these units regularly.  In addition, in low use scenarios, the water will become stagnant.

Most importantly, the electricity costs of operating heated automatic waterers will be much higher than the actual unit itself!

Because of this, you should consider the upfront purchase price of electric waterers first, of many, never-ending payments.

With heated automatic waterers, you will be lucky enough to continue to pay additional costs every month when your electric bill arrives… Yay!

Non Electric Waterers

Non-Electric waterers encompass a wide range of options.  Historically, energy-free often meant the waterer would use some type of insulation or thermos type strategy to keep water from freezing.  Almost assuredly, these waterers also came with a minimum headcount.  There is one reason for this, and it is because if not used enough, the units will freeze.

The essential principle behind traditional nonelectric waterers is to insulate everything above the frost line and keep the water moving enough that it will not freeze.

These types of systems can be a good fit if you are servicing 50+ head of animals.  However, if that does not describe your situation, these style of waterers have a tendency to freeze in situations with less than 20 animals.  Also, if you want to leave the waterer unused for days or longer, you can almost guarantee a thermos style waterer will have issues in freezing temps if it’s not getting regular use.

Frost Free Automatic Waterers

This style of nonelectric waterer stands head and shoulders above its competitors.  The distinguishing factor with this waterer is that all unused water drains out below the frost line after every use.

This means:

  • No electricity
  • No insulation
  • No minimum head count
  • No algae growth
  • No heating element
  • No float
  • No thermos system
  • No de-icer
  • No heat cable

Frost free automatic waterers are the best suited and least known style of waterer for head counts of 1 to 50 animals.  Each unit individually can handle 20 to 25 head.

In addition to the health benefits to the horses, there are some additional benefits to the caretaker during the winter months:

  • No breaking ice off troughs or buckets
  • No refilling buckets or troughs in cold weather.
  • No unnecessary energy costs associated with heating water all winter.
  • No special installation requirements for cold climates!
  • No hassles!!!

With frost-free automatic waterers the animal walks up to an empty bowl, they press the paddle, and water comes up from the valve located below the frost line.  For climates with a 4’ frost line, you could install an 8’ post, with 6’ buried in the earth, and 2’ above grade.  This way, when the animal activates the waterer, the water comes up from 5’ below grade.  This ensures the unit remains frost-free through the coldest of temps without the need for electricity!

The Roundup

Watering animals in the winter is drastically different than in the warm summer months.  There are some real tradeoffs to consider between cost, convenience, and quality.

When planning for medium to long term use scenarios, most will find the Frost Free Automatic Waterer superior because it delivers higher quality water without any electricity costs.  How is the water quality higher?  Simple, the water is delivered fresh directly from the water source with each use.  Never is the water sitting stagnant in a bowl, potentially growing algae (or anything else for that matter!)

For short term installation (a couple of days or weeks), the convenience of buckets or troughs will likely prove to make the most sense, but you’ll pay for it in electric costs!

By installing the Drinking Post Waterer, you can provide fresh, clean 10C / 50F water year-round.  The waterer maintains this temperature year-round without the need of electricity to warm it because the water is coming up from below the frost line with every use. This ensures the temperature of the water is to animals liking throughout the winter and will promote optimum health.

Do yourself a favor and consider Drinking Post as you evaluate your water management strategies.

Join the Drinking Post community and invest in your animal’s good health and your own sanity this winter.  You won’t’ regret it!

4 thoughts on “Winter Waterers for Horses, Cattle and Livestock”

  1. I am interested in purchasing the Drinking Post waterer. I have 4 horses. We live in northern Idaho where it freezes. How do i get one of your waters?

    • Hi Marilyn, you can purchase one of our waterers on our website under our Shop tab, you can find it by following this link: If you have any questions or need help choosing the correct size based on your animals and the depth of your local frostline, feel free to give us a call. Our number is 303-482-1642, we’d be happy to help! Also, check out our FAQ, it’s a great resource and should answer most of your questions! Here is the link to our FAQ: Thanks!

  2. Thank you for warning us that horses can be at risk of dehydration in winter because of icy water being too cold to consume, so it’s best to get a waterer specifically designed to be used during winter. My dad is raising horses on our farm, so he needs automatic waterers soon to keep his horses hydrated during the upcoming cold months. I’ll keep this in mind while I look for stall waterers my dad can use for his horses.

    • Yes, providing your animals with water at the right temp is something that often gets overlooked. However, it is very important to offer them water that’s not too hot in the summer and not icy and cold in the winter. Just like us, they will drink less if the water isn’t a good temp.


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