Ask the Expert: How Does Water Quality Impact My Calves? – Dr. Noah Litherland, Vita Plus

Posted on October 28, 2015 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
By Dr. Noah Litherland, Vita Plus dairy youngstock technical specialist

Question:  How do I interpret my water test results and what impact do these results have on my calves?

Answer:  A few weeks ago, I received an email from a calf grower struggling with calf health and growth.  The consultant collected a water sample and submitted it to Rock River Laboratory, Inc. for solids analysis.  Rock River has a very nice report that provides concentration of solids as well as some guidelines for levels of concern.  The “target” pie chart gives a great indication of where these values sit in terms of optimal, marginal and warning for water quality.  Water microbiological analysis is also recommended, but was not completed in this example.

The water sample came back as fairly high in sulfate, iron and copper.  These values are not atypical of water samples in our region.  Elevated sulfate and iron will often decrease water palatability and intake.  Hard water certainly reduces the efficiency of detergents for cleaning equipment.  We recommended a water softener and/or a reverse-osmosis system combined with a heavy duty iron filter to improve water quality and stimulate water intake.

Before investing in equipment, we recommend a simple study where quality water is brought from an off-farm source and a subset of calves is offered clean drinking water and milk replacer mixed with clean water for at least two weeks to gauge the impact on calves.  Quality water is a big piece of the puzzle, but all of the other parts of a successful calf program need to be in place.  Consult a trained and qualified water technician to make a complete assessment of the situation and determine if well depth and capacity, as well as best water treatment and filtering options, are explored before investing.

Water is required for all of life’s processes: transporting nutrients, digestion and metabolism, elimination of waste, and maintenance of fluid and ion balance.  Water is a critical nutrient for calves and should be available starting at the first days of life.

To digest feed, rumen bacteria must have water.  In general, water intake of 4 to 5 pounds is needed for digestion of 1 pound of starter grain.  Milk and milk replacer do not contribute significantly toward free-choice water intake.  It is thought this is because they bypass the rumen during the nursing process due to the closure of the esophageal groove, a muscular fold that shunts milk past the reticulo-rumen (first two compartments of the ruminant stomach) and into the reticulo-omasal orifice where milk is directed to the abomasum for hydrolytic and enzymatic digestion.  Limited research defines the amount of water required by nursery calves, but is thought to increase linearly with increasing consumption of dry feed.

It is recommended water be provided free choice to calves receiving liquid diets to enhance growth and feed intake.  Kertz et al. (1984) reported calves offered free-choice water in addition to the liquid diet gained faster and consumed dry feed at a younger age than calves provided water only in their liquid diet.

In dairy calves, water intake increases from about 2.5 pounds per day during the first week of life to more than 5 pounds per day during the fourth week of life.  Most of the increase occurs during the fourth week.  Quigley et al. (2006) determined that starter grain intake is strongly correlated with water intake.  Greater amounts of starter grain intake are associated with enhanced rumen development, more efficient growth and improved calf health.

A great reference article for water quality was authored by Dr. David Beede from Michigan State University entitled “Assessment of Water Quality and Nutrition for Dairy Cattle” and can be found here.

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Category: Calf and heifer nutrition
Starting Strong - Calf Care