The vast majority of our ewes (thirty-seven to be exact) are currently housed in our lower paddock that abuts the Storage Barn. This setup allows the ewes access to the lean-to and the back stall in the barn. Both areas include hay feeders, and the lean-to has a series of supplement blocks: cobalt, protein, and salt/minerals. Their automatic waterer is just on the other side of the outer wall. We put it there because we know how messy water can be and didn’t want extra moisture where it could wet the straw bedding. Although the water is only a few steps away, when the ewes pull their faces out of the water bowl, all the dribbling happens outside the bedded area. In general, this works pretty well.
When we set up the automatic waterer, I realized that we would sometimes need water at this barn for some purpose other than watering sheep, so we also added a yard hydrant. I wanted to locate the hydrant where it would not be in the way when we were cleaning things out but would be convenient enough that I didn’t need to go far out of my way to get to water. In the end we decided to put the hydrant into the back corner of the lean-to on the inside of the wall; with the automatic waterer on the outside of the same wall, some shared piping made installation less expensive. Having the hydrant there has worked out well, since when the outside waterer freezes up in the cold or during winter power outages, we can put a water tub under the hydrant and easily fill it for the ewes. In fact, we’ve had this very issue a couple of times already this year when the windchill dropped to between -30F and -40F with winds from the northwest. When the waterer froze up, we simply set up a tub under the hydrant, and in five minutes, the ewes once again had water.
After cleaning the area with the tractor over a number of years, the hydrant’s vertical pipe has developed a bit of a lean, making the hydrant more difficult to turn on and off. For quite a while now, I’ve struggled to turn the water on, and then I have to sit on the handle to get enough leverage to turn it off. Year after year I’ve been saying that I’ll get it fixed — but it still hasn’t happened.
Recently, however, this hydrant has become a true problem — well beyond a sticking handle. One or more of my sheep has discovered that the handle of the hydrant makes a terrific back scratcher! Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, but keep in mind that we’re talking about a handle that turns the water on and off. As they scratch and lean, pushing up into the handle to get just the right amount of pressure through their woolly coats, the handle lifts and the water turns on. Of course, when this happens, the sheep run and scatter, knowing they have done something scary, not only because it is relatively unusual in their otherwise routine life, but also because it’s uncomfortable, as the straw bedding becomes more and more wet.
A couple of months ago, I entered the paddock area in front of the lean-to and found a raging river flowing over the concrete pad. Because we have a board acting as a threshold across the opening of the lean-to (to keep the straw in), the water was able to build up inside until it was six or eight inches deep. It then began to flow over the top of the board in a stunning but horrifying waterfall, creating a cascading river in the lean-to that flowed across and around the obstacles spread over the concrete pad and then the yard. What a mess!
The only solution was to turn off the hydrant, pull up the board (thankfully the warmer water temp unfroze it from the ground), and allow the lean-to floor to drain for a day before we dug out all of the wet bedding and rebedded the area with dry straw. We ran a zip-tie around the hydrant and through the handle to prevent the sheep from being able to raise the handle, and we let everyone know that it was there for that reason. We thought the issue was over.
Then, only a couple of weeks later, the outside waterer froze up for a day. Seth put the water tub in place under the hydrant, filled it with fresh water, and turned the hydrant off. The next morning, he arrived for morning chores to find the hydrant full on and water pouring over the sides of the tub, again flooding the floor and cascading over the board as previously described. The zip-tie went back on, but only until the next frozen waterer when it happened again.
We have come to the conclusion that, for now, there is no really good fix for this problem except to keep a bag of zip-ties next to the hydrant. Every time we use the hydrant, we must cut the tie and pocket it for disposal, and once we finish with the water, we must apply another zip-tie to hold the handle in the off position. We have found that this is the only way to ensure that we don’t come out to the cascading river and a mess we really don’t want to deal with.
I just find it incredibly frustrating that although I cannot easily turn this hydrant on and off via the stuck handle, my four-legged friends seem to have no problem doing so, seemingly with little effort!