Fast Fact: Water for Starter Intake – Dr. Noah Litherland, Vita Plus

Posted on November 21, 2016 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
By Dr. Noah Litherland, Vita Plus dairy youngstock technical specialist

Question:  How much water is needed to digest 1 pound of starter grain?

Quick answer:  It is estimated that 4 to 5 pounds of water are required to digest 1 pound of starter grain.

A bit more:  It is estimated that 4 to 5 pounds of water (about 2 to 2.5 quarts) are required to digest 1 pound of calf starter grain.  We determined this by measuring water and starter grain intake by calves and then evaluating the ratio of water and starter the calf consumed.

Creating the right mix of starter and water in the rumen seems to be a little like mixing cement.  The right amount of water is needed to provide moisture for rumen microbes to inoculate feed particles.  It also lubricates feed, allowing for regurgitation and passage from the reticul-rumen to the abomasum for hydrolytic and enzymatic digestion.

Water is the most important nutrient for all of life’s processes, including transport of nutrients and other compounds to and from cells, digestion and metabolism of nutrients, elimination of wastes, and maintenance of proper fluid and ion balance.  Water is a major component of growth as a calf’s weight is typically about 75 percent water.  Resident time of a water molecule in the rumen has been estimated to be a little more than 1 hour in cattle.  A calf’s water intake typically increases with size and age, with the greatest increase occurring at weaning.

Tips to optimize drinking water quality and quantity for dairy calves

  • Make sure fresh and clean drinking water is available at all times.
  • Evaluate well water quality at least annually.
  • Change hoses used to water calves; biofilms can develop in the hose, resulting in increased risk of pathogen transfer through drinking water.
  • Use a detergent to clean drinking water fountains daily in group-housed calves.
  • Make sure drinking water is within easy reach. The 24-inches rule can be applied for both starter and water intake. The distance from the standing surface to the water level should not be greater than 24 inches for nursery calves.
  • Make sure no physical barriers, like a fence, are between the calf and water access.
  • Ensure adequate distance between calf resources in group-housed facilities. For example, in autofeeder barns, place milk, starter and water feeding stations at least 6 feet apart so calves have room to access these resources.
  • Evaluate the water pressure gauge to determine if water pressure varies throughout the day and ensure that water pressure is not limiting water intake.
  • Is a water holding tank used to store water before it’s offered to calves? If so, clean it every two weeks and collect bacterial samples periodically to ensure the water is pathogen-free.
  • Optimal water intake occurs when water is offered shortly after feeding milk and water temperature is warm. Target the same temperature as milk (102 degrees F).
  • In individual pens, space water and starter with enough distance (or add a divider) to prevent calves from cross-contaminating grain and water.
  • Evaluate water treatment systems (water softeners, filters, etc.) weekly to ensure they are in proper working order. A properly working water softener will add only a finite amount of sodium to water in exchange for removing iron, manganese and calcium.
  • Dispose of waste water away from the calf management area.
  • Cover the calf drinking water when bedding with mechanical bedding equipment.

Category: Calf and heifer nutrition
Starting Strong - Calf Care