Calf care checklist: 3 steps for good water hygiene

Posted on October 6, 2021 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
By Dr. Lucas Mitchell, Vita Plus calf and heifer specialist

Everyone knows water is one of six essential nutrients.  However, the magnitude of its importance is often unrealized and, in some situations, downplayed.

The importance of CLEAN water for developing calves and heifers cannot be overstated. While ensuring calves and heifers always have access to water is a good practice, it isn’t enough. The water must be clean and fresh, have appropriate mineral levels, and be easy for animals to access. Research shows animals offered limited or no water will have reduced feed intake and performance. Water that is dirty, stale, or high in bacteria can be expected to have a similar impact on feed intake and performance.

Calves will consume 3 to 4 pounds of water per pound of starter intake. Ensure water is palatable and desirable by following these three steps for good water hygiene.

Step 1:  Regularly clean water feeding equipment and buckets.
Water in buckets should be dumped and replaced with fresh water daily. If milk is fed in those same buckets, rinse any milk residue from the bucket before filling with water to help minimize bacterial growth. Buckets should be cleaned with a brush at least once weekly or more frequently if the inside of the bucket feels slimy. After cleaning the water buckets with a brush, spray them with a disinfectant. Chlorine dioxide, mixed at 100 ppm, is a good sanitizer to use.

If water is transported to calves via a poly tank, it is important to clean the tank diligently. In many cases, these tanks do not have spray balls, which can make them particularly challenging to clean and keep clean. If your tank doesn’t have a spray ball, get in there with a brush on a daily or, at minimum, weekly basis. It is also important to shock the tank approximately once per week.

If a hose is used to provide water to buckets or troughs, make sure it is drained and hung to dry after every use. If the hose is not frequently drained or is stored on the ground, it increases the risk of bacterial growth and contamination. Include water hoses in your routine sanitation checks (see Step 2) and consider replacing/repurposing them on a yearly basis.

Automatic waterers should be cleaned with a brush and sanitized with 100 ppm chlorine dioxide two times per week. If you are worried about water draining into the pen and soiling the bedding, explore ways you can catch the water.  It is worth the time and effort to keep these waterers clean.

Step 2:  Perform routine sanitation checks on water feeding equipment.
This should be performed on at least a quarterly basis and potentially more frequently. An ATP meter and swabs make this a simple process and it’s a great way to ensure that cleaning protocols aren’t slipping. While ATP meters do not identify specific bacteria, they’re extremely useful in determining overall bacterial load and helping to identify potential hot spots.

Water feeding equipment often does not receive the same cleaning attention as milk feeding equipment, but a common hot spot for bacterial growth on many farms is automatic waterers. This makes sense as it is an area that many animals visit frequently. This is also why regular cleaning and sanitizing of these items are so important. Other water feeding items that commonly present bacterial concerns are poly tanks without clean-in-place features and water hoses.

Step 3:  Regularly collect a water sample to send in for analysis.
A water sample should be collected from the well and sent in for analysis on a yearly basis or more frequently if problems arise. The most common concerns are nitrates, iron, sodium, sulfates and total dissolved solids. Sodium and total dissolved solids impact osmolality, which may cause scours if too high. Many bacteria require iron for growth and, thus, if the iron level is too high, it may cause increased bacteria growth in the water or even in the calf’s gut. If sulfates get too high, water palatability and polioencephalomalacia may be concerns.

Various analytical laboratories have listed online average values, expected values and values at which these various items may cause possible problems. Be aware, different labs may have different values at which possible problems may be expected to occur from these various minerals.

If you are interested in a sanitation check or collection/review of a water analysis, please reach out to your local calf and heifer specialist.

Category: Animal health
Calf and heifer nutrition
Starting Strong - Calf Care