Precious water

It is very simple: there is no life without water. Although water consumption varies with time of year, size of the animal, type of feed and other related factors, each of our sheep will consume between 1/4 and 4 gallons each day. The presence of clean, fresh water is critical to our flock. Their coming lambs rely on it; their gorgeous fleeces hinge on it; and their very lives depend on the availability of that very important thirst-quenching resource.

One would think that with four permanent automatic waterers around the barns and five more self-filling buckets in our more distant fields, I would finally be in a position to not have to worry about water for our flock — but that would be wrong. It seems no matter how automated our water supply may be, there are always times when it becomes an issue — a major issue! And this issue is never worse than in the dead of winter when Iowa temperatures can dip well below zero and this liquid resource becomes a solid problem.

It seems that we deal with this problem every year. Maybe a circuit breaker switches off or we have a power outage. Perhaps a mechanical part in the waterer fails or a terrible blast of exceptionally cold wind comes from just the right direction. For whatever the reason, it seems that at some point each winter, at least one of the waterers freezes up and leaves some portion of our flock without this necessary resource, creating a crisis.

Our automatic waterers are quite impressive, actually. Each sits atop an eight-foot concrete tube that supplies the warmth of the earth below the frost line to keep the water bowl thawed. The theory is great, but after only a year of use, we realized that we would have to connect a back-up electrical heater within the waterer if we wanted to keep our water flowing. Our winters here can be very cold!

When we built the Sheep Barn a few years ago, we moved two of the waterers into the new structure, one on the inside and one outside. Within that first year, we realized that we also needed to shut down the outside waterer during the coldest months. With the west winds blowing directly over its surface, not only would this waterer freeze up, but more importantly, it would freeze up the indoor waterer to which it was linked. The waterer inside the barn supplied critical water to the delivering sheep and, eventually, to their lambs. We began shutting down the outside waterer each fall, surrounding it with bales of straw to keep it insulated and to keep the water flowing inside the barn.

The water pours into the bowl through a copper tube about 3/8 inch in diameter. This copper tube sits atop the bowl, just under an aluminum ring. Since both copper and aluminum conduct heat and cold very well, this little copper tube of water freezes very easily. Even a cold wind from the right direction will chill the aluminum ring, freezing the copper tube. Extremely cold temperatures will also freeze the copper tube, even without wind. We’ve tried wind breaks and even a temporary structure around the waterer, but all to no avail. In the end we added heat tape around the little copper tube, and that has kept the water flowing — most of the time.

Now the issue has become power failure. When the power goes out and the temperatures are cold, there is no internal heater to keep the water flowing and no heat tape to keep the copper tube thawed. Within hours (sometimes minutes) everything freezes up — sometimes to the point where it won’t thaw until spring. The problem is that the sheep still need water. They don’t understand that there has been a power outage or that the breaker tripped. All they know is that they are eating dry hay in a very cold environment and they want water. Eating snow or ice will provide water, but it will chill them even more. They need fresh warm water, not ice or snow.

Several years ago we bought a number of 16-gallon heated water buckets. They plug in and act as our back-up water system. Because they hold sixteen gallons, they retain heat longer than our waterers and stay thawed for a longer period of time, giving us some space to rectify the loss of power or to troubleshoot any failure in our automatic system. Besides that, the heating element in these buckets is not within the water reservoir but is instead inside a plastic housing within the bottom of the bucket — meaning that if the water does freeze into a solid block, we can tip it over and knock the block out of the bucket, refilling it with water from the hydrant as needed.

I know it seems silly that despite all our automation we are still talking about filling buckets and dumping out frozen blocks of water. But that’s how it is. The low-nutrition group can drink over 150 gallons of water in a day — yes, a day! — and the high-nutrition group over 60 gallons. That doesn’t even include the rams’ water consumption. That’s a lot of water to haul — but what are the choices? They all need water, since water is life.

So when the power went out to the waterers this past weekend due to a tripped breaker, I got our back-up buckets ready and once again began to fill them with nice clear water every few hours as needed. Rick went to work fixing the cause of the tripped breakers and painstakingly thawing water lines with the sheep looking over his shoulder. It’s nothing new. It happens every year. But I sure wish that one year would pass without this very well-known routine. Now that would be a New Year’s blessing!

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