Old troughs tell tales

Photo of water trough
Alan Sharp unearths some of the history around those old farm troughs.

Is this the last of the old 12-foot troughs that were dotted around Gordonton and surrounding districts?

Until recently, one was across the road from the Tauhei Hall, but it disappeared with a roading upgrade. From the cattle droving days, it is a relic of a bygone era.

I can remember the winter cattle droves, where several hundred cattle, at a time, were walked from Poverty Bay and Hawkes Bay, up through the Bay of Plenty, and into Waikato’s Ohinewai and Te Kauwhata districts.

The photographed trough was the last of the eight I inherited when I bought my Father, Ron Sharp’s, dairy farm. Come this year’s drought, it was evident it was well past another cement wash and plaster repair, water was oozing out from beneath the trough.

Two or three of the troughs were old originals from the early 1920s, crafted with care by my Grandfather Jim Sharp, using the 12-ft round mould that he and Victor Ballard went half shares in. Jim had a reputation for being a concrete enthusiast, as evidenced by the concrete paths at his and several of his cousin’s homes. He believed the lady of the house was entitled to sure and solid footing between the homestead and the amenities. The long drop, wash house and fire wood supplies were all up the garden paths in those days.

Historic photo rural Waikato
Len Kempster, left, and Jim Sharp unsuccessfully tried their hand at finding a bore water supply while a young Ron Sharp looks on. Taken in the early 1930s.


The remainder of the troughs were made by my Father between milkings, often unaided, or with a little help from Jim, then in his late seventies. They were more rustic, but still served their purpose for over 30 years.

Our last surviving trough was built in, or just before, the depression and was well over 75 years old. The farm’s original concrete troughs were all small rectangular ones, that were handy to the two windmills.

This year’s dry summer was not Gordonton’s only dry one. In those distant past years grasses more often ran to seed and naturally died down, because farmers lacked the management tools and machinery of today. Keeping cows well watered, and stocking rates up, was as essential to good pasture management then, as now.

While writing this, I went looking for Dad’s recipe/procurement list, that I had found many years ago, but couldn’t find it. After World War II he took over the home block, and his first purchases as a share milker were hundreds of Waratahas and barbed fencing wire by the hundred weight. He wanted more than just four secure paddocks on the farm. But that then called for water troughs as well, to supply herd drinking water to the new paddocks, and he had only limited funds to achieve that result.

Historic Waikato photo
Following an accident, the whole community turned out over several days to make Jim Sharp’s hay on the Fresh Field block. December 1928/ January 1929.

So after delivering their truck load of milk to the Gordonton factory, he would rush home to empty the Bedford truck of all but two washed milk cans (20 gallon/100 Lt approx.) These two he filled with clean factory water. He then drove to the Roose Shipping Depot on Grantham Street, Hamilton, to load up with half a cubic yard of river shingle and a yard or so of concreting grade, river sand, and possibly about six bags of cement. Without the recipe I estimate, about 1m3 of concrete is required for each 12ft trough.

After a quick bite to eat, he drove to the pre-prepared ground, in the centre of a proposed fence line, thereby serving two paddocks. With the truck close to the mould, he tossed the petrol driven concrete mixer inside the 12ft circle. He then started making concrete as fast as he could, shovelling his supplies straight from the truck deck into the mixer, and then bucketing cement into the mould and tamping. With the afternoon milking looming, time was not on his side so the last mixes were spilled out beneath, and around, the mixer. It was then tossed back up on to the truck deck, and the floor of the trough was given a quick level, and tamp down, with a rake.

In later years, I found some of those troughs were a pain to de-sludge with a flat mouth shovel. Especially the two still with gumboot prints in them, but Dad just got on with the job, as his big picture energies were directed towards thinking up ways to streamline milking.

The making of the mould and the troughs, was simple enough if you knew how. First the local corrugated iron/water tank manufacturer was asked to roll out three standard section lengths of galvanized iron, so that when bolted together they would create a 12-ft diameter circle, by 26 inches high (Standard corrugated iron width = 660mm.) The second, inner circle, set of three sheets, to be given another pass, or two, through the rollers reducing the diameter to 11 ft, 8 inches. To the outer edge of these three sheets was riveted flat lengths of galvanised iron. This gave the curved inner sheets a more ridged form, and left a non-corrugated, inner trough wall.

At the selected levelled site, the two bolted section circles were placed on the ground and separated by half a dozen, two-inch fence battens, dropped in vertically. The top could be stabilised by a 12ft spreader bar, or some angle bracing of the wall. Under the mould forms, and extending through the proposed floor of the trough, was a threaded end, length of galvanised water pipe. The top of the mould was checked for being level. The bottom of the outer mould was staked in a number of places, so that it was flush with the ground, and the base of the trough excavation could then, by a couple of inches, undermine it.

The inner circle was likewise packed, but this time so that it sat up some two inches higher, and proud of the outer mould. This top lip allowed for easier pouring of the insitu-cast concrete. This produced a concrete base of four inches, and giving a working trough depth of some two feet, or a water storage capacity in the range of 1,300 gallons; or 1,200 gallons, if a ballcock was being installed.

All that then remained was to mix your concrete, and bucket it in between the two walls of the mould. Progressively they worked their way around, and around the mould with added cement, using the battens as they went, to tamp the new concrete. Packers and spacers were progressively removed, as the tamped concrete took the load.

Just under half-way up, the battens would be removed completely, and a ring of barbed wire would be cast into the concrete. More concrete would then be tamped in, and a further reinforcing ring of wire, would be added a few inches from the top.

Tamping is an art. If you tamped too hard, the mould could distort, or all the wall concrete forced out, on to the trough’s floor, which was normally added last. Tamp too lightly, and the taped air would not be worked out well enough. The concrete mix needed to be even between batches, and not very wet, otherwise separation could occur – all weakening your trough. A few days later the six mould sections, would be carefully removed, and then the water fittings attached.

So back to this trough that was in the middle of the farm, and at 1200 gallons (4455 Lt) was the biggest trough design used. It was fed by pipe from the back windmill and well, over 200 yards. Adjacent to the windmill were the two original, rectangular 10ft ‘horse troughs’ of about 280 gallons, (1136 Lt) each. A similar big sister 12ft round trough used to be out in the cowshed paddock, supplied by the shed well. It fell apart some time ago, when clipped by a tractor.

Historic photo water trough
Old faithful – this trough was made by Grandad Jim around or before 1918.

On the Riddell/Sharp Fresh Field block Granddad also built a number of these large troughs. They were set up with connecting galvanised water pipe, so all were at the same level and could be gravity feed from the one closest to the windmill. Where the supplying water pipe crossed a farm drain, a tee was installed with a vertically pointing breather pipe, so cut off, and pipe arch angle rotated, as to act as an adjustable overflow pipe. Thereby eliminating overflowing troughs and associated mud.

Historic photo water trough
The replacement, awaiting back fill.

Another little tale and chapter in the innovative and enterprising farming history of the sharp family, who emigrated to New Zealand from Scotland, in the 1840s to the early 1860s.

Finally, here is Number 8 Network’s own Annette Taylor, with a grand old bit of farming history.

Historic photo of water trough
What a gem – this old relic was on a farm near Cambridge – it was removed soon after for development of the land.


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Number 8 Network - a community website for the rural areas northeast of Hamilton, NZ, is run by Gordonton journalist/editor Annette Taylor.

7 thoughts on “Old troughs tell tales

  • May 29, 2013 at 8:39 am

    We have one of the 12 foot troughs at our old walk-through cowshed that was last used in 1965.

    I fell in to it when I was not very old and was in danger of drowning. Someone saw me and pulled me out.

    We have a corrugated iron moulded 6 foot trough in use still.

  • June 18, 2013 at 10:14 pm

    We have a 10 foot trough still in use today.

  • August 6, 2013 at 9:11 pm

    We have some of these troughs on our farm – the kids call them swimming pools and they very well could be with the size that they are.

  • September 2, 2013 at 11:49 pm

    Enjoyed reading this VERY much, but am trying to learn about an early cattle trough….:
    ~oblong in shape…
    ~has the name THOS.NAFLER? (NAPIER ?)…MAKER…
    MORNINGSIDE written on the side of it…in a stamp shaped like a rugby ball…
    ~used to have a handheld pump near it.

  • April 15, 2017 at 7:32 am

    What would one of these rectangular concrete with stairs leading down into it be used for?

    • April 26, 2017 at 8:07 am

      Our best guess is that it sounds like a sheep dip, Joy.

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