Water Tank Heater Woes

Learning how to light the water tank heater leaves a lasting impression on one farm youth.

  • Before automatic waterers, farm kids had to haul buckets of water — said kids might argue it impeded their growth.
    Photo by Dennis Auth
  • Lighting the water tank heater in the winter was a tough job.
    Photo by Dennis Auth

My wife and I raise a few Jersey steers on our farm. The little brown bovines mow the grass in our cattle yard and put beef in our freezer. During the wintertime, our steers munch hay from a hay ring, which has zero moving parts. They nosh grain from a self-feeder, which also has no moving parts. I like to keep things simple. I’m just a simple-minded guy.

The most complex part of our beef operation is the automatic waterer. This gizmo contains highly pressurized water, yet never explodes. The waterer somehow knows when it’s cold outside and warms itself with an electric heater. I think it knows how to think. The cattle waterer may be complicated, but I’m extremely glad we have it.

When I was growing up on our family’s dairy farm, we had one source of water for all the animals. This source began with a 2-inch galvanized pipe that had been sunk down to the water table. Bolted atop this pipe was an old and creaky pump jack. (My wife might argue “old and creaky” also describes me.)

A woefully underpowered electric motor drove the pump jack via an unshielded V-belt. It was as if a sewing machine motor were cranking a Mack truck.

A steel pipe that hung from the pump jack’s spout diverted the pulsing stream of water into a round wooden tank that was about the size of a hot tub. Our two dozen milk cows had access to the water tank and drank from it freely. I suppose a person could have taken a soak in our water tank, but that would mean being exposed to high levels of cow slobber.

 Most of the animals on our farm were watered with 5-gallon buckets carried by hand. (Farm kids were shorter back then due to the skeletal compression that resulted from carrying innumerable 5-gallon buckets of water.) An aerial view of our farmstead would have revealed a network of worn footpaths that ran between the hog house, chicken coop, calf barns, and the water tank, resembling game trails surrounding a watering hole in a scorched desert.

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