Winter Watering - Generations of Innovations

Published on Fri, 12/17/2010 - 9:04am

I had a one of a kind Grandpa. Well, maybe we all say that about people that we admire who have lot of knowledge. Sometimes we would get to work together in the corncrib with Grandpa and my uncles on the day the corn sheller would come to Grandpa’s farm. This was a great workout because my job was to rake the ears of corn in the gigantic corncrib into a drag that would take the ears of corn to the sheller. The corn sheller would shell the corn off the cobs. The corn would go into wagons and the cobs would go into a pile that looked like a mountain to me - or maybe I was just really little. The remaining cobs were used for many purposes in those days. 

1) Bedding livestock. If the livestock were truly lucky, the farmer would grind the cobs offering a softer livestock bedding material.

2) Heat. Farmers would pile the cobs in a burn box with a smoke stack to heat the water in a large round stock tank usually made of steel or redwood. The heat kept the water from freezing so the livestock could drink. Talk about a job! Every 4-5 hours, farmers would have to replenish the cobs in every kind of weather. Burrrr! In the morning, dry cobs were always needed to start a new fire.

Necessity being the mother of invention, burning cobs to keep waterers open led the way for improvements and modernization and automatic waterers began to gain popularity. Gas heat was used years ago and still is in use today.  A gas line from a heating unit leads to a propane tank. When using the steel or concrete style waterers, the gas-heating units are under the tank heating the steel pan or concrete trough. This would heat the pit, keeping the water line thawed and heat the water in the trough. 

On the dairy farm where I grew up, my dad sold Surge Dairy equipment.  Dad loved his equipment and built a state of the art, four-stall Surge Milking Parlor with glass pipes so you could actually see the milk pumping from the cow and flowing to the bulk tank where the milk was cooled and stored for the milk truck, which would come every other day. What a sight! It was an innovative, magnificent barn like what you might see only in a magazine!

At ten years old, my job was to make sure the dairy cows had drinking water.  Every morning during the winter months, Dad or I had to thaw the waterers out so the water would flow. We would do this using hot water from a bucket.  We would carry the water and a rag to the tanks. We would hold a hot water rag on the hose and pipes and pour hot water on the valve until the water was flowing. Sometimes this took several trips of carrying hot water buckets depending how low the night temperatures had dropped. We usually had to do this just once in the early morning, because the 120 cows drinking from the water tank would keep the troughs open during the day. At night the tanks would freeze over again, and we would get up the next morning to thaw the tanks again, once more carrying a hot water bucket and rag to the tank. Day after day after day, and yet, I would not change a thing about that daily chore!

Modern ideas for heating water tanks for livestock have progressed over the years. Most waterers today are electric 120 or 240-volt systems.


Pits are used in conjunction with electric heat to keep water tanks from freezing. Back in the day, people would install a new waterer and under the water tank create a pit just as big. Everyone thought if you had trouble with the tank you could just jump down in the hole and fix it. This was too big of an area to keep from freezing most of the time, which was a problem that needed to be solved.

In the late 70’s to early 80’s, the fad was to use a small 4” to 6” plastic PVC pipe or tube to bring the water line and electrical lines up to the waterer.  The idea here was exactly opposite as before - the smaller the hole, the less area to heat. The tube went down into the ground 4’ to 5’ to bring up ground heat.  This didn’t work well because the tube was too small and the frost line would be too close to the water line and freeze up easily.

Today, cattlemen use a 16”- 24” tube or concrete tile extending 5-6 feet deep to bring the water pipes and electrical lines to the tank. Often in the Midwest, the elements force people to take even one extra step to keep water lines from freezing. Many insulate the outside of a new pit’s tube or concrete tile with ridged 1” to 1 ½” polystyrene insulation sheathing strips about 5” wide x 4’ long, surrounding the tube for added protection. Five strips work great, because they easily form a circle around the tube or concrete tile. Adding dirt around the outside of the insulation sheathing strips will keep the strips in place, hugging the tube or tile. This way you have an insulated tube through which your water line comes to your waterer. It is best if your tank has the same polystyrene insulation to keep your water line working even in the coldest weather conditions. All pipes should be insulated to provide maximum freeze protection and conserve energy.

Heating Elements

Electrical tube-type heating elements are used throughout the livestock watering industry for all types of waterers including steel, concrete, or poly.  These tubular heaters range from 100 to 1500 Watts depending on the size of the waterer. A 100-Watt heating element is similar to the Wattage of a 100-Watt light bulb. Electricity runs through the heating element that (generally) is submerged in the water just under the hood, under the pan, hung in the pit, or hooked to the water line. The tubular heater increases the temperature of the water or air much like a burner on a stove heats a pot. The tubular heating elements connect to a thermostat that tells the heating element when to turn on and shut off. 

Some thermostats are adjustable and some are preset with no manual settings. The thermostat can sit in the water to read the water temperature or it can be attached to the tank to read the air temperature. The adjustable thermostats operate the heater according to your wishes.

Another style of heating unit is a round-patented submerged Teflon heating device, which includes an automatic thermostat within the heater that you cannot adjust. The thermostat kicks on automatically when the water temperature drops below 34 degrees. This type of heater comes in several different Wattages designed for livestock waterers. Some poly-style waterers use this style of heater. 

In addition to heaters and thermostats regulating supplemental heat, 100-250 Watt pit heaters may be used underneath the watering units in the pit area, especially if the tank keeps freezing. These will keep water flowing for your livestock. Generally, if the pit isn’t clean or if there is not a 4-5 foot deep pit to get the ground heat to keep the line open, a pit heater can assist in keeping the water line open. Some people even use light bulbs in the pit to maintain heat temperature under the trough if necessary.


Also available are auxiliary heating equipment, such as heat tapes attached to the actual water pipe, used to keep the water line open.  Some heat tapes have an automatic thermostat that begin heating at 38 degrees F and turn off at 45 degrees F.  Heat tapes that remain at a low and constant temperature can also be purchased.

A pipe and hot heater can keep your water line open as well.  A pipe and hot heater is an under the tank heating system, a form of central heating that uses heat conduction and radiant heat for climate control.

As years have passed, my experiences have enabled me to advise others on the methods for keeping their livestock’s water tanks open in the winter using a variety of heaters and supplemental heat options.  

Hedstrom’s company, Iowa Engineered Concrete Products (IECP) of Schleswig, Iowa, is one example of a business utilizing the progress these products have made over the years, making cattlemen’s jobs a little easier.  IECP makes the Blue River line of products, including livestock waterers for cattle, sheep, horses, and other species that needs open water during the winter months.  Their waterers use polystyrene insulation and automatic temperature controlled heater thermostats to keep your livestock’s water fresh and easily accessible all winter long.  Learn more about these products by visiting   

Another company doing what seemed impossible only a generation ago, is Miraco Livestock Water Systems of Grinnell, Iowa.  The company sent the American Cattlemen offices a short video in which a livestock producer in Freeman, South Dakota puts his bare hand in open water while a thermometer sitting on the side of the water tank reads –12.8 degrees.  (Go to to view the video.) Carter Thomson of Miraco tells us that the super-insulated heaters in their waterers keep the water temperature between 40 and 50 degrees no matter how low the mercury drops outside.  Thomson also pointed out that many of these products are so efficient that producers can take advantage of the government rebates being currently offered in some states, and that these units, powered by 250 Watts, usually only cost around $8-$10 dollars to heat your livestock’s drinking water for the entire winter.  For more information visit

With products like these on the market, watering your cattle in sub-freezing conditions has gone from a time-consuming, backbreaking and expensive chore to a triumph of the innovation of companies like IECP and Miraco.