Importance of Water for Dairy Calves

Published on Thu, 07/07/2022 - 12:35pm

Importance of Water for Dairy Calves.

 By Heather Smith Thomas.

 Dairy calves need water as well as milk or milk replacer.  How and when it is supplied can make a difference in their health and growth.  Dr. Bob James, a dairy consultant and owner of Down Home Heifer Solutions, Blacksburg, VA (Former Extension Scientist at Virginia Tech) specializes in calf management and nutrition.  He works with many dairies across the country, helping them do a good job with their young stock, and has suggestions for providing water to calves.  “A lot of it is common sense.  Water should always be available to these calves, right from day one.  It must also be fresh and clean,” he says.

Dr. Whitney Knauer (Assistant Professor of Dairy Production Medicine, University of Minnesota) says that every mammal’s body is more than 50% water, and water in the body is crucial for many different functions including metabolic processes, dissipating heat, transfer of nutrients, eliminating toxins, etc.  “Even though calves don’t drink a lot during the first two weeks of life, water should be provided,” she says.

Free choice water, in addition to the fluid in milk or milk replacer is important for several reasons.  “Water drives starter intake, and calves that have access to water eat more starter grain.  Water that is consumed free choice goes straight into the rumen--as opposed to milk that goes into the abomasum when a calf suckles; the milk is digested in that simple stomach.  When water is combined with starter grain in the rumen, it starts the process of fermentation and rumen development,” she explains.

Free choice water is also important when feeding milk replacer with variable or high total solids levels.  “When we have variable levels of total solids in milk or milk replacer, this can lead to changes in osmolality in the digestive system.  Calves provided free choice water can self-regulate to help prevent bloat or nutritional scours,” she says.

The most common way to provide water to individually-housed calves is in buckets.  “These need to be checked daily to make sure they are free of urine and manure.  Ideally the water should be fresh and clean, and offered twice a day. Buckets need to be rinsed and changed once per day.  This will improve weight gain, compared to rinsing them only once a week or every two weeks,” she says.

A less common way to provide water is via nipples on a water line.  “In those situations we need to make sure those water lines are clean.  Calves also have to learn that this is the way they obtain water.  Some studies show that nipple feeding actually decreases water intake in young calves, compared to offering water in buckets,” says Knauer.

Waterers (buckets or gravity flow/automatic waterers) should be placed at a height that the calf can reach the bottom.  “Some recommendations state the best height to be about 24 to 27 inches, but keep in mind that some breeds of calves (some crossbreds and Jerseys) are shorter and may need different bucket heights,” she says.

Best practice is to place the bucket outside the pen. This allows easy access for people feeding the calves, and helps keep the buckets clean.  “Placing them inside the pen (or inside the hutch) improves accessibility for the calves, but also increases the chance for contamination.  The main thing is to check those buckets daily and make sure they are clean--rinsing them, and providing new water,” says Knauer.

“In general, the average calf will drink about 2 quarts (1/2 gallon) of water per day, but this depends on calf age and ambient temperature.  Older calves that are eating more starter grain will drink more water.  In addition, calves will drink more water when it is hot outside; they may drink up to 1.5 gallons or more per day, in addition to their milk.  One thing that will decrease water intake is when calves are drinking high volumes of milk or milk replacer (such as unlimited milk on an automatic calf feeder).  However, those calves will still drink about 1/2 gallon of water per day, so this should be the minimum target when thinking about providing water,” says Knauer.

Some farms have water containers for the calf hutches that hold less than a gallon of water.  In hot weather, calves will drink all of that and need more.  Drinking more water is an important factor in countering heat stress and preventing dehydration.  Adequate amounts are crucial.

One problem often seen on farms where calves are raised in individual hutches is that the water and the calf starter are in buckets located too close together.  “They need to have some space or a divider between them,” says James.  This keeps the calves from contaminating the water with calf starter and dripping water into the starter.   Both situations are undesirable, reducing intake of water and starter.  

Calf starter is very expensive.  One of the problems he sees on many dairies is a lot of wasted feed.  If the starter gets wet, calves won’t eat it.  “All too often those buckets are right next to each other,” says James.

The water should always be palatable and not contain any harmful substances.  “I recommend that farms check the water source and quality at least twice a year, especially if the water supply for the calves is different than what the cows are drinking.  Elevated levels of minerals can create problems with palatability and calf nutrition.  In addition to mineral levels, water should be tested for nitrates, pH and total solids.  Serious problems are uncommon, but when water quality is an issue the impact on animal health and growth can be severe,” he says.

Calves won’t drink enough water if it doesn’t taste good.  “Manganese is a good example.  If it is more than 0.05 parts per million the water will have a bitter taste.  Even very low levels can be an issue because the calves won’t drink the water.  Some of the sulfur levels were high on one farm I visited, and the calves were not drinking the water.  Hydrogen sulfide (that smells like rotten eggs) is not the only issue; sulfates can also be a problem and give water a bad taste,” he says.

“Some minerals can affect palatability and others (particularly sodium) can influence intakes and even make calves sick,” says Knauer.  “Screening for common diarrheal pathogens including E. Coli and cryptosporidium can also be done, as these pathogens can be present and contribute to transmission of scour pathogens, particularly when we have a shared waterer which is common in group housing situations.”

Water flavorings can be added to water to improve palatability and increase intake.  “One study, conducted at the University of Guelph, investigated several different water flavorings. They found that calves offered water flavored with orange (vs. vanilla) ate more starter and gained more weight in this study.  While this is likely impractical, it provides some insight into what producers can do to improve water palatability, starter intake, and subsequent growth,” she says.

“One farm I worked with had built a beautiful calf facility but the calves were not growing well,” says James.  “We had evaluated ventilation, the vaccination program and experimented with multiple milk replacer powders with no success.  A water quality test revealed excessive levels of several minerals with impaired intake and digestion of the milk replacer,” he says.  

Some people think there is enough fluid in milk or milk replacer and that young calves don’t really need much water, but calves always need access to adequate water.  Even beef calves that are getting a lot of milk from mom will sample water from troughs, creeks or ditches in their pasture and start drinking a fair amount of water at a young age.  

Another challenge with water management for calves is the practice of delivering water and milk in the same bucket. This eliminates the need for an extra bucket, but when adding water to the bucket after milk feeding there are substantial residues of milk remaining.   The “milky water” supports growth of potentially harmful bacteria.  This situation also reduces water intake.  The solution to this problem is to provide separate buckets for water, milk and starter or feed calves their milk or milk replacer in a bottle.   

“There is another issue with water management associated with feeding calves their water and milk in the same bucket,” says James.  “After milk feeding, water is added to the bucket, but prior to the next milk feeding the remaining water needs to be dumped.   In calf hutch management, that usually means dumping it in the alley between the calf hutch rows.”  This it creates excess water in the calf environment which can attract flies.  

“If the dairy is in an arid climate where everything is bone dry, it may not be an issue, but if it’s wet and humid you end up with a mess.  If farms are providing water in buckets, the ideal thing is to have a separate bucket for water rather than re-using the one for milk,” he says.

“If they don’t, then I insist that they collect the extra water between feedings and put it into some kind of container to haul it off.  These are just little things but they add up to big things, and some people never think about them,” says James.

As calves get older, they will be eating more feed and consuming more water, so it continues to be important to supply adequate palatable water.  “For weaned calves, I like to make sure that the waterers are located away from the feed bunk, because they’ll do the same thing—drag feed into the water, or get moisture in the feed.  I also don’t like waterers with the balls on top because young animals have to learn how to use them; they don’t know that there’s water under that ball,” he says.  They don’t have a role model like mama to show them.

The other drawback is that those waterers rarely get cleaned out.  “If a farm is using one of those in their weaned calf pen, I push that ball down and reach down with my hand and pull  residue up out of the bottom of that waterer—and it’s really nasty.  It’s an accumulation of calf saliva, feed particles, etc. and the buildup can become really gross.  Those are hard to clean out, and this is why I prefer an open trough, that can be cleaned daily,” he says.   A little thing like having clean water can make a big difference.  If the water isn’t palatable enough for you to drink it yourself, don’t expect your cattle to drink it.

In cold climates, water may freeze in winter.  “In very cold weather, we rely on water to help drive starter intake (which helps provide more energy to help the calves stay warm), says Knauer.  “This is important in addition to other energy-saving factors like calf coats and deep straw bedding,” she says.  It can become a challenge to provide water when it freezes in the buckets, but this can be helped by providing warm water several times throughout the day, especially right after milk feeding.

“The farms that I work with feed the calves milk and then come immediately afterward with warm water,” says James.  Calves learn to tank up on the water while it’s warm and not freezing.  They also tend to want to keep consuming something after they finish their milk, and are more likely to drink some water at that time.

“Thus there are several things that are very important for dairy calves: water from day one, fresh water every day, adequate amounts, making sure it is palatable, testing the water, and separating the starter from the water,” he says.