Water in the Winter

Posted on November 8, 2012 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
By Ann Hoskins, Vita Plus Calf Products Coordinator
Cold weather is approaching. In order to maximize performance and health, you need to provide the key ingredients, including enough calories, high quality starter and water. Are you prepared to offer water this winter?  Even in cold temperatures, providing free choice water is essential for a successful calf program.
Water is necessary for the following functions:
  • Maintaining body fluids and proper ion balance
  • Digesting, absorbing, and metabolizing nutrients
  • Eliminating waste material and excess heat from the body
The amount of water lost from the calf’s body is influenced by air temperature, humidity, respiratory rate, housing conditions and activity of the animal.
From birth to approximately two weeks of age, the calf is totally dependent on liquid milk or milk replacer for its daily nutrition requirements. Most of the energy and amino acid needs of calves are derived from intestinal digestion of milk or milk replacer. When the calf begins to consume water and calf starter, bacterial fermentation begins to produce larger amounts of volatile fatty acids. Production of volatile fatty acids is responsible for rapid rumen tissue development that allows for early weaning of calves.
Research shows calves receiving free choice water from birth to four weeks had a higher daily gain, consumed more calf starter and had fewer scour days than those calves receiving no free choice water.
Effect of free choice water on performance
Free choice None
Daily gain, lbs. 0.68 0.40
Calf starter intake, lbs. 26 18
Scour days per calf 4.5 5.4

Source:  A.F. 1984 Journal of Dairy Science 67:2964-2969

Studies also show that calves offered water in addition to a liquid diet gain faster and consume dry feed earlier than calves provided water only in their liquid diet. Therefore, it is recommended to provide water to calves receiving liquid diets to enhance growth and dry matter intake. Weaned dairy heifers consume approximately 1 to 1.5 gallons of water per 100 pounds of body weight.
Guidelines for free choice water to calves
Age (months) Gallons per day
1 1.3 – 2.0
2 1.5 – 2.4
3 2.1 – 2.8

Source:  Penn State Extension.

The temperature of drinking water appears to influence drinking behavior and animal performance. Given a choice of water temperature, calves prefer to drink water with moderate temperatures (63 to 82 degrees F) rather than very cold or hot water.
You may be thinking: how do I get water to calves in the winter when it is only going to freeze?  Offer water within 30 minutes to an hour after milk. Once you have offered water, go back and empty the pails before they freeze. Also, feed water to intakes. Do not fill every pail full so you do not have to empty as much water. Be careful where you dump your water in the winter as it can be a safety hazard if you dump water pails right next to the hutch or pen.
Offering water is easy, simple and will have an immediate impact on calf performance. If you’re not offering free-choice water now is the time!
Easy recommendations for feeding water:
  • Offer water starting at day 3
  • Offer water at least twice a day
  • Always offer fresh, clean water
  • Water should be free-choice (do not limit water intake)
  • Rinse pail between milk and water feedings (water should not be cloudy)
  • Keep pails free of foreign material (i.e. feces, grain)
  • Keep water and grain pails separate

Category: Calf and heifer nutrition
Starting Strong - Calf Care