There are two entirely different approaches to dealing with horse buckets and stock tanks in freezing weather. If you have access to electricity the remedies are quite simple, if your left without electricity, keeping horse water thawed is a challenge, but possible- and even easy with a bit of creativity.
ELECTRICITY FOR KEEPING HORSE WATER THAWED:
If your stock tank is near a fence or you have electricity ran near the stalls in your barn, you can purchase heated buckets or heaters for stock tanks very affordably. These heaters are made for use in agricultural settings are are very tough and safe. Be sure to ask for help shopping, though, as some heaters are not appropriate for some types of tanks (uncaged sinking heaters in plastic/rubbermaid tanks, for example) These heaters are made to shutoff automatically when the water reaches about 50 degrees.
KEEPING HORSE WATER THAWED WITHOUT HEATERS:
Here are a few tips for keeping water tanks thawed when you do not have access to an electric water heater. (We're blessed with water heaters on our farm, but during a several day power outage following an ice storm in 2007 we brushed up on using creativity to keep water from freezing!)
First off, most horses know how to break ice in a tank. So don't think you have to keep every bit out. All of our horses know to break ice, and even in lower single digits many horses will keep breaking ice through the night so there will still a muzzle-sized hole in the morning.
1. The bigger your tank, the longer it takes to freeze. So watering from a muck bucket versus a 150gallon or bigger tank is a big, big difference in how long it will stay thawed.
2. Cover as much of the surface of your tank as you can. Consider bolting a sheet of plywood to the rim around the top- you just need enough of an opening for them to get their head in, and covering the rest will help keep water from freezing as fast. Works even better if you pile dirt or even snow on top of the board, proving extra insulation.
3. You may want to drain your tank, dig some of the dirt underneath it out, set the tank in the small hole, and pile the displaced dirt around the sides. This will help use ground heat to keep the horse's water thawed. Also when you feed you can tuck your horse's hay right up against the sides of the tank to add more insulation.
4. Your best bet, if you don't have electricity, is a double-tank. Find an old leaky stock tank and place a slightly smaller rubbermaid type stock tank inside. Then insulate the space in between with whatever insulating material you can find. Insulation or Styrofoam being the best, but dirt, straw, or hay chaffe will work too. This paired with a partial cover should keep a tank from freezing over except in really extreme weather.
5. When breaking ice, actually remove the frozen chunks of ice from the stock tank. Removing ice instead of just breaking it, and replacing it with water above freezing will help cut down on ice.
5. In a pinch, harness the power of manure!! When we got hit with our first storm as horse owners we'd take a muck bucket, find the warmest, freshest piles of poop, put them in the bottom of the muck bucket, put a water bucket on top, inside the muck bucket, and then stuff the gap in the sides of the 5gal and muck bucket with hay. It worked really well! That 5gallon bucket wouldn't even form a film of ice while the 150 gallon tank had a few inches by morning. The picture below illustrates this method. The bottom of the black muck bucket contained fresh manure, but the water in the blue bucket stayed clean- and warm!
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