Pay Attention to Water Trough Design and Maintenance – and Location

By Bill Steele, South Carolina Horsemen’s Council
Manager, Anne Springs Close Greenway
Edited by Karen Marshall, ELCR

In any equine horse operation, outdoor sources of water are a primary element in healthy horse-keeping. The location, installation and maintenance of watering systems are also considerations in Best Management Practices for horse properties. There are many styles of watering stations, from plain plastic tubs to electrified, horse controlled waterers. Providing a steady, clean and palatable source of water is important to maintaining the health and wellbeing of horses, and can help in reducing costs related to diseases and feed digestion.

The author’s article, beginning with the following paragraph, describes a non-electrified watering system that is useful where electricity is not available or not possible. The author also points out some critical factors in locating and installing your watering device, no matter what the type, to prevent soil degradation and limit maintenance issues – saving dollars in the long term. Editor.

In managing a horse boarding operation with eighteen pastures in the piedmont of South Carolina, the Anne Springs Close Greenway has made an effort to minimize the time required to maintain our twenty water troughs. Initially, we used the 150 gallon plastic water troughs. These were effective, but in the freezing months, a substantial amount of time was spent each morning breaking and removing ice. These troughs are not within reach of electricity, so trough heaters were not an option. The flexible water supply hose was also at risk of freeze cracking.

With assistance from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, new water troughs were installed. High traffic areas made of crusher run gravel over geotextile matting were also installed around each trough. The troughs were located distant to trees that would fill the troughs with leaves in autumn. Livestock will also drink more warm water from a trough with sun exposure than cold water in a shaded location. There is also less damage to the pasture where the troughs are located on high and dry ground versus low, shaded, and wet areas. It is important that you choose a trough that your number of animals can cycle through within a week’s time to maintain water freshness.

The troughs that we chose to use are made of concrete. The troughs were purchased from a local company that makes septic tanks. We chose to use half of a 1,000 gallon septic tank. The walls and floor are four inches thick. The thickness of the trough aids in insulating the water from freezing by thermal warming from the earth. Our troughs are three feet tall, eight feet long and four feet wide.

trough two fields

This well-located water trough serves two horse fields. It’s located away from treelines and was installed with geotextile matting over a gravel sub-base to protect the soil around the waterer. Photo by Bill Steele.

With this design, the water supply lines are buried under ground with the fitting in the floor which protects them from damage by freezing weather. Two threaded ¾” diameter PVC fittings were delivered to the vendor to be set in the floor of each trough when the concrete was poured into the casting molds. This allows for a water supply fitting where a gate valve can be placed inside the tank. The gate valve is helpful for shutting off the water for cleaning. A float valve is attached to the gate valve to control water level. For the protection of other animals who visit the trough, the float valve is adjusted for the water level to be four inches from the top of the trough so that thirsty small critters that may fall into the water can climb out.

A second treaded fitting is cast into the floor for cleaning purposes. A threaded plug is placed in this fitting and a PVC drain line is attached to the bottom of the fitting and runs to the edge of the high traffic pad.

We incorporated the troughs with the partition fence for one trough to provide water to two paddocks. The float valve is located three inches from the long side wall and at the midpoint under the fence wire to protect it from damage by curious livestock. One drawback of the heavy concrete trough is that it must be completely drained during cleaning if allowed to get heavily contaminated with algae. This can be prevented with timely attention to water treatment.

Several methods of water treatment are available to prevent contamination. The most practical and cost effective approach to algae control is to add three ounces of unscented household bleach per 50 gallons of water every two weeks. This concentration is diluted enough as to not harm livestock. The use of copper sulfate is questionable for livestock that may be sensitive to it. A method that has been used in Europe for generations is to add barley straw to the water. The tannins in the barley will initially color the water a brown tint. This is not harmful to animals. The enzymes from the barley feed on the algae. You can find Stock Tank Solution barley bags at your local feed store. The bags are effective for up to three months depending on the season.

If mosquito and other larvae are a concern, one half cap-full of flax seed oil can be added to the trough water. This will create a thin oil film on the water surface to prevent larvae development. Some have had success with goldfish and other fish species to feed on aquatic vegetation. Unless the trough is insulated against freezing, the fish will not survive the winters. There is also a concern about the feces that the fish generate in the water. The presence of intestinal worms is water troughs is not a concern. The parasites are ingested from the soil and short grass and may find their way into the water of a trough as the animals drink, but the trough is not a source of contamination for livestock.

These tips and lessons learned are from my twenty years of water trough experience. There are many successful solutions for a variety of farm applications. The bottom line is that providing clean and safe water for our horses is essential and something that we owe to our equine companions.