Water is the critical issue to wintering animals outdoors, or as we do, in unheated shelters. The horses will hoover up all the hay you give them. The sheep and pigs will use the stuff for bedding and you can clean it up and compost it in the spring.
Unfortunately, water doesn’t work so well. The animals will drink two or three times the weight of water as of hay, and the stuff freezes so you have to work really hard to get rid of it before you work really hard to bring more. Quite honestly, buried water pipes could well be reason enough to winter your critters in a barn. Chores take half as long, and hauling 80 pounds of water is more exercise than I think I really need these days.
Last year, we carried buckets for the sheep, ten to twenty gallons a day in five-gallon buckets. This year, with the horses and pigs, it’s impossible. Instead, we’re unrolling the garden hose every other day and filling the horse and pig troughs. We top up the sheep with buckets on the other days, but that’s nothing compared to what the horses drink. It’s still quite a chore to haul the hose out and then reel it back in, as I’m using the faucet in the basement, the one guaranteed not to freeze.
We put a floating heater in Spike’s group’s tank as a test and it seems to have worked well. It melted the ice and keeps the water open. The heater says ‘not for use in plastic tanks’ but ours are real rubber, and so far all is well. I will be very careful not to let the tanks run dry. Based on the success of that, we bought heaters for all the sheep pens. Last year, we could just dump out huge ice cubes and start over. That’s something else that doesn’t work with a hundred gallon horse trough and a fifty gallon pig trough. We tried a floating pond heater once long ago. It froze into the ice and our second set of goldfish died. (It was our last set. Critters, even fish, are not disposable, and I wasn’t about to set them up a hotel in the basement.)
The first thing we tried was a drain-hole heater in the horse trough. It works. The first issue with the pig trough was that it didn’t have a drain hole. It does now, and that heater works fine as well. The current issue is that Hermione (possibly Ginny as well, but I’ve only seen Hermione) likes to stand with all four feet in the pig trough. This entails kicking the heater: I can tell because water leaks out the drain-hole when she does. I worry that this may result in both a burned pig and a broken heater, but I’ve no idea how to stop it.
We also bought a heated hanging chicken waterer. I’ve got mixed feelings on that one. Yes, it works and the chickens need water. However, it has no cord at all: You have to plug the end of an extension cord right into the base. IMO this saved the manufacturer two bucks and cost me twelve. Second, it is extremely difficult to fill. Attaching the tank to the base takes several minutes every time, this time, IMO because it saved a nickel in plastic. And finally, like all hanging waterers, you have to keep raising it to stay above the rising bedding or it will drain itself. I’m thinking I may just swap waterers every evening and let them hit the horse trough during the day.
We now have a major heating load out there. The drain-hole heaters for the Rubbermaid tanks pull 1500 watts each. The floating ones pull a kilowatt. The chicken’s water heater and lamp are another 180 watts. We have two outdoor outlets, so simple extension cords for the heaters are not a possibility. We tried swapping the cords around for a while, but it took several hours to thaw a frozen tank to drinkability.
So we spent a bazillion dollars at Home Depot to get the stuff for a distribution panel. It has four twenty amp circuits, (with two spare breakers) which will cover four sheep pens at two per circuit and the pigs and horses at one each. The chickens are piggy backed on the pigs. (I couldn’t resist.) There’s a forty amp 240v breaker in the main box in the house and 100 feet of 8/3 to power it. I have to figure that at thirty below (F or C, close enough) all the heaters will be on, so I can’t play statistical games. I’d planned to get 6/3 to have some margin for growth (thus the extra breakers), but the cable was an extra dollar a foot, which adds up fast.
It was a day’s work to build and install, but we’ll get that back at 15 minutes a day and everyone now has water.
I got it all hooked up as today’s project, now we can declare winter quarters complete. A shed for George and Gracie (rather than housing them in the livestock trailer), and replacing the broken glass in the chicken coop would both be good things, but we also need to start looking forward to spring.