The most frustrating part of the winter is its tendency to turn water into ice. Keeping livestock fenced, housed, and fed all present challenges, but nothing can compare to the difficulties of making sure every last cow, sheep, pig, and hen can take a drink at will. It’s not any sort of trouble for the racoons and foxes and other wild creatures that haunt my snowy woods and frozen pastures to find a place that the stream is flowing vigorously enough to keep open a watering hole, but it would not be remotely practical for me to give my animals such free rein, and if I did the chickens at least would soon become meals for these untamed neighbors.
There are a number of solutions that can be purchased to keep a standard stock tank clear. Floating heaters work well enough, though they require a nearby frost free hydrant to be refilled. More permanent insulated tanks, some of which are actively heated and some of which rely on the latent energy of earth and water to keep from freezing, are hassle free. But they’re also expensive, and they require not just a buried waterline but also a cement pad to work properly, meaning they can’t be moved once installed.
The most elegant way to solve this problem if geography allows is to configure a tank so that it both draws water from and returns it to a stream. With a little planning and a lot of irrigation pipe it’s possible make this arrangement quite a distance from the actual source. If the water flows continuously and at high enough volume it won’t freeze, at least not until a cow manages to knock off the drain and turn a hillside into a sloped skating rink.
But dealing with a good number of chickens is a different problem entirely. There are practical solutions for a backyard flock, and there are systems sized for giant poultry houses, but there aren’t many waterers designed with the small farm in mind. This has put me in the familiar position, both fun and frustrating, of trying to cobble together something that will work without costing an arm and a leg.
I’m going with a design that I’ve seen on a couple other farms. It will consist of a tank with a loop of plastic pipe attached to it, which will serve a double purpose. Individual watering points will be to it, but so will a heat strip. A pump of the sort used to push water through a decorative fountain will circulate the contents of the reservoir through the pipe, which will keep them from freezing. In theory it should work, but pumps fail, and a power outage on a cold night could see me hauling buckets of water for a while.