Water, Water, Water

Posted on November 2, 2012 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
From Ann Hoskins, Vita Plus Calf Products Coordinator

To maximize calf performance and health, you need to provide the key ingredients for summer living.  Offering free choice water is essential to a successful calf program.

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.  Water is necessary for:

  • Maintaining body fluids and proper ion balanceDigesting, absorbing and metabolizing nutrients
  • Eliminating waste material and excess heat from the body

From birth to approximately two weeks of age, the calf is totally dependent on a milk or milk replacer diet for its daily nutrition requirements.  Most of the energy and amino acid needs of calves are met with 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. This is responsible for the 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.

Table 1: 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: Kertz, 1984

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. Weaned dairy heifers consume approximately 1 to 1.5 gallons of water per 100 pounds of body weight.

Table 2: 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

Water should be fresh, clean and always available.  Care should be taken to ensure adequate water supply during periods of heat stress. When outside temperatures and humidity soar, it is important to add extra water feedings to calves.

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°F) rather than very cold or hot water.

Easy recommendations for feeding water:

  • Offer water starting at day 3
  • Offer water at least twice a day
  • Always offer fresh, clean water at a moderate temperature
  • Water should be free-choice (do not limit water intake)
  • Rinse pails 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