Water is an often overlooked aspect in many calf raising programs. Research has shown that it takes 17.3 days for the average U.S. dairy to first offer calves water.1
However, most experts agree that calves should be offered water at one to two days of age.
Providing calves with free-choice water from their first few days of age is one of the easiest and cheapest strategies to employ for improved rumen development, average daily gain and preparation of calves for a smooth weaning transition.
Why is water so important?
Maintain proper hydration
— Keeping calves hydrated is critical during scours and heat.
Better starter intake
— Calves offered free-choice water consume more calf starter and begin to grow at a faster rate.
Improved grain fermentation, which assists with rumen development
— Milk replacer consumed by a calf is directed into the abomasum which, early in life, is the calf’s largest stomach compartment. When calves drink free-choice water, it’s directed to the rumen and aids in the fermentation of calf starter, which, in turn, helps to develop the rumen.
How much and when?
By one or two days of age
— Young calves may only drink a pint or two, but it’s important to have water available.
By two months of age
— Calves should be drinking 10 to 12 quarts (2.5 to 3 gallons) of water a day.
Calves will drink more in hot weather
— Water consumption may go up by 33% or more when temperatures reach the high 70s and low 80s, and may double when temperatures pass 90 F.
Fresh and clean water is essential
Provide fresh water daily and do the following to keep water clean:
— Feed buckets should be separated from water buckets to prevent grain from being dribbled into the water and vice versa. Research at the Purina Animal Nutrition Center showed separation improves both starter and water consumption.2
— A study conducted at Utah State University found frequent rinsing of water buckets for hutch-raised calves increased daily bodyweight gain by over 7% during a 60-day pre-weaning period and through the next 100-day growth period. It's recommended to clean buckets two
times a day but, if not feasible, buckets should be cleaned at least every 7 days.2
Water quality is a critical element
Poor water quality can result from several factors, including elevated mineral levels in water, microbial and environmental contaminants as well as total solids present. Feeding poor quality water can decrease calf water consumption and starter intake and may hinder rumen development and impact calf health.
Watch out for elevated mineral levels
Mineral levels in water are a particular water quality concern. Findings of a nationwide water analysis showed mineral levels in water can be quite excessive. All the minerals examined, with the exception of zinc, exceeded levels desirable for livestock in at least one or more of the 3,618 on-farm water samples collected. The analysis showed water mineral levels also can be quite variable, even on the same farm.3
Excessive mineral levels in water are harmful to calves because they are more sensitive to elevated mineral concentrations than adult cattle. For example, some water tests will show 2,000 ppm sodium in water is acceptable for cattle, but calves only tolerate 50 ppm.4
Softened water often exceeds this level. Calves also aren’t tolerant of iron, manganese, magnesium, sulfur and microbial contaminants.
Minerals in water can affect water palatability and intake, which can negatively impact calf starter intake and rumen development. On-farm reports also suggested the overall performance and well-being of calves is affected by elevated mineral levels in water.5
Routine water testing needed
Water-quality issues, such as the presence of elevated mineral levels or microbial contaminants, are good reasons to regularly test the water given to calves. At a minimum, test water fed to calves annually, but ideally twice a year, for minerals, nitrates, total dissolved solids and pH, as well as contaminants such as bacteria.6
Local health departments or commercial analytical labs can test the water fed to calves. Since calves are more sensitive to water- quality issues, you can also ask for a calf suitability test.
1 NAHMS Dairy 2014 study
2 Wiedmeier RD, Young AJ, Hammon DS: Frequent changing and rinsing of drinking water buckets improved performance of hutch-reared Holstein calves. The Bovine Practitioner 40:1-6, 2006.
3 Impact of Variations in Chemical Composition of Water on Potential Palatability and Mineral Intake of Dairy Cattle, M.T. Socha, J.G. Linn, D.P. Casper, D.J. Tomlinson, A.B. Johnson, International Animal Agriculture and Food Science Conference Abstracts, 2001.
4 Assessing the Baby Calf Diet from a Nutritionist’s Perspective, Calf Nutrition & Management 101, Tom Earleywine, Ph.D., Director of Nutritional Services, Land O’Lakes Animal Milk Solutions.
5 “A good, long drink,” July 2007, Dairy Herd Management.
6 Assessing the Baby Calf Diet from a Nutritionist’s Perspective, Calf Nutrition & Management 101, Tom Earleywine, Ph.D., Director of Nutritional Services, Land O’Lakes Animal Milk Solutions.