Automatic Waterers Improve Quality of Life for Operators & Livestock
When Bryan Welch wanted to install automatic livestock waterers on his Kansas farm back in 2006, he did not make the decision lightly. Instead, he took a systematic approach to evaluate the pros and cons of a variety of companies' waterers purchasing five units of assorted brands to install across his farm.
Using a grass-based, organic management-style on his operation, Welch rotationally grazes his animals on approximately 50-acres of pastures which are split into a 6-paddock grid.
To improve water access across the property for his livestock, he placed waterers in each pasture and tested the tested the units over a course of four seasons with his mixed bag herd of livestock which currently includes 15 cattle, 120 sheep, 20 goats, one mule, and two donkeys. A small flock of chickens complete the farm animal menagerie.
"It's incredibly convenient to have automatic waterers," says Welch. "It fits the animals and it dramatically cuts down on the time one has to spend dealing with water situations."
Many designs of livestock waterers exist, Welch explains, "They're all basically the same: a drinking reservoir fills automatically when a valve is triggered by a declining water level."
"We didn't want to use electricity, so we looked at only 'energy-free' models, designed to resist freezing without electricity," says Welch.
In regards, to "energy-free," Welch clarifies this means no electricity is necessary to operate the waterer or prevent freezing. It should be pointed out, though, that "energy efficient" models are also produced. These waterers are insulated heavily and use a low-drain electric heating system.
For either energy free or efficient models, supplemental heat sources may be needed to prevent freezing in extended periods of cold. Energy-free models are also more likely to freeze if they are not used by a certain minimum number of animals, says Welch. Producers with smaller operations should keep this in mind when researching automatic waterer brands and models.
"If you have a lot of animals on a single waterer, you reduce the chance that it will freeze because there's enough water flow to keep them functional," says Welch. "If just a few animals, there's a greater likelihood you're going to need a heated waterer."
"Continuous flow" models are also available, Welch explains, and prevent freezing by running water continuously through the container, with the surplus flowing into a drainage setup.
Before putting waterers into a pasture, Welch recommends planning carefully and making note of potential installation costs.
"The waterers themselves are relatively inexpensive, usually less than $700 or so," says Welch. "They're easy to justify when you figure you won't need to buy any more water tanks, hoses or axe handles."
The real costs, Welch points out, lie in the installation expenses. Water lines need to be run and buried below the freeze line to every waterer. Installing the waterers themselves is not simple either and may require a professional touch.
Waterers should be placed near a fence line, possibly somewhere visible, for ease of inspection. In addition, because cattle congregate near water sources, waterers will need to be placed on a concrete pad. Geotextile fabric topped with gravel or concrete washout can also provide a stable surface around waterers.
To install five waterers on 50 acres in 2006, Welch spent about $7,000 for plumbing, pipes, and trenching.
"If we had dug our own trenches, laid our own pipes, and did our own plumbing, we could have reduced that cost to less than $900 per unit," says Welch. "If our pastures came together in a central location, we could have installed a simpler layout for even less."
To help with the decision process, Welch suggests considering the following factors:
- Animal numbers - Will your pasture be empty or will you carry animals thru winter? If there are only a few animals and temperatures drop, they may not drink often enough to prevent an energy-free unit from freezing. Most of these units are designed for an optimum number of 25-50 animals.
- Climate - Most energy-free models (when adjusted properly) will not freeze. However, if winter temperatures are extreme, in the single digits for example, an energy-efficient or continuous-flow model might be a better option. Deciding which to use early on will determine whether electricity also needs to be run along with water lines.
- Ease of maintenance - Some automatic waterers has visible floats that are a different color from the rest of the unit, such as Miraco'sMirafount with its blue float and black body. As long as the float is visible the farmer can be ensured there's sufficient water in the waterer's reservoir, even from a distance.
Whatever brand and model of waterer is chosen, Welch says, there's two ways to go about the installation - start with one to get a sense of functionality or go all in with as many as needed. In either, case having a clear idea of your needs is the key.
Of the five models Welch tested, he says the Mirafount waterers outperformed the competition, functioning well with little required maintenance throughout Kansas winters.
"They've been more durable," says Welch. "They are also black so they take advantage of sunlight when it's cold and there's a danger of freezing which greatly increases the likelihood they will stay ice-free. Then there's the whole thing about the seal being blue. If floats above the opening so that you can see it from a distance. For me that's a terrific advantage."
Welch leaves potential livestock waterer users with one last piece of advice:
"Once in awhile sit down and think about how you spend your time. What chores take the most time? Do you enjoy them? I think sometimes when people reflect on that, they discover that spending a few dollars on time saving technology, like an automatic waterer, can greatly improve your quality of life, as well as your productivity. Those are good things."